Morgan Brian trying to add another championship
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Winning a world championship is usually worth a parade, perhaps a rally, too. At the very least, it's good for some time off your feet to relax, reflect and generally indulge some hard-earned satisfaction.
Morgan Brian didn't get an open-topped bus ride or a speech. She got a red-eye flight and a sociology lecture. And a whole new season.
So much for basking in the afterglow.
For her troubles, the University of Virginia sophomore midfielder did at least earn a chance to chase a rare double, potentially pairing a world championship in a major international event with a college national championship in the same year. Barely two months after she helped the United States to a title in the FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup, beating rival Germany in the final of a tournament played in Japan, she is the playmaking engine of a Virginia team that rolled to an ACC tournament title and entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed with as much momentum as any team in the bracket.
It's no coincidence that Virginia hit its stride at the same time that Brian regained hers. The national player of the year out of high school in Georgia two years ago and the national freshman of the year at Virginia a season ago, she may be the most dynamic attacking midfield presence the college game has seen since Megan Rapinoe played that role for Portland.
"If you play with Morgan, she's going to make you better," Virginia coach Steve Swanson said. "She's going to help solve pressure. She's going to put people in good situations, forwards where they can do things. She's going to clean up balls backs play to her. I think she's just one of those consummate team players."
Or in this case, consummate teams player, which is why this year has been a grind unlike any she has known before.
Brian is not alone in her quest to double up on championships. When the second round of the NCAA tournament gets under way this week, 16 players who represented the United States in the World Cup will take the field for college teams, a list that includes Maya Hayes and Taylor Schram for No. 1 Penn State and Mollie Pathman and Kelly Cobb for No. 3 Duke, teams potentially standing between Virginia and its first College Cup appearance in more than two decades if the Cavaliers successfully navigate a second-round game against Rutgers. In that respect, Bran's experience speaks to what all of them are likely dealing with to varying degrees.
She played her first game for Virginia on Sept. 16, but she said it wasn't until the final game of the regular season against Boston College on Oct. 25 that she felt like her old self.
"I was really, really tired coming back," Brian said. "I'm actually admitting that for the first time right now, but just the school and the jet lag and wanting a break from such a long haul."
The tournament in Japan lasted about three weeks, plus a week and a half in the country beforehand to acclimate and train, but that was the tip of the iceberg for the players who committed two years to the process of earning roster spots, qualifying for Japan via a CONCACAF tournament in Panama this past March and then missing the start of the college season. Brian was one of only four players on the U-20 team to start as many as 16 international games this calendar year, duties that took her from her East Coast home to Spain, Panama, California and finally Japan. Among field players, only Pathman and North Carolina's Crystal Dunn, both defenders, played more minutes.
She was sitting in that sociology class roughly 48 hours after she got on the plane for the trip home from Japan. Eight days after she played 90 minutes against Germany in the final, she played 100 minutes against North Carolina.
"Coming back here and having to deal with school on top of a whole other season was probably the hardest thing I've ever done," Brian said. "Looking back, I think I really realize that now, but when I was going through it, I was trying to make myself feel like it wasn't the hardest thing."
One bonus for Brian is that no returning player had a coach who better understood where she was coming from, literally and figuratively. Swanson, too, is shooting for a double after coaching the United States to the U-20 title.
"It's not just in August," Swanson said. "It's the cumulative effect for all these players because most of these players, we had been together pretty continuously from January on. That cumulative effect from January -- all the travel, all the training and going through an emotional experience like the World Cup, and now you come back in and you're still almost in preseason with your college team."
Brian's major minutes against North Carolina notwithstanding, Swanson and his coaching staff tried to limit her minutes when possible and give her an extra day off from training during the rugged ACC conference season. But for Virginia, a team that thrives on possession and technical soccer, to be at its best, it needs a player with both goal-scoring instincts and the vision to see passes few others do.
"She was a mature player when she arrived; she has an extraordinary soccer brain," Swanson said. "The biggest thing that I've seen change is she's playing faster. She's doing things at a faster speed. ... She's kind of been the straw that's stirring everything. I think she wants to be a part of a team; she's always wanted that. She fit in so well to both our team here at Virginia and the national team because she's such a team player."
The Under-20 World Cup has been a bugaboo for the United States. It won the first edition of the tournament in Canada in 2002, then classified as an Under-19 event, on Lindsay Tarpley's goal in the 109th minute against the hosts, but its only other title came in 2008. Two years ago in the biennial event, the United States was eliminated in stunning fashion in a quarterfinal penalty shootout against Nigeria. It appeared hard luck might again find the Americans this year after a 3-0 group-stage loss against Germany and a quarterfinal against North Korea that was level at 1-1 after 90 minutes. But a goal in extra time against the North Koreans and a redemptive semifinal win against Nigeria earned Brian and her teammates a rematch against the Germans, an opportunity they didn't waste.
However tired her mind and body have felt at times this fall, however much work it took to settle back in on the field and in the classroom, it was worth it.
"I had developed some of the best friends on that team, and I think I'll have them for the rest of my life," Brian said. "To win that sort of a title with those best friends, and because every single one of you puts in so much work throughout the whole process, only you, that core group of people, know how much work you put in for that to happen. ... All the work you put into something, it eventually pays off. That's what hit home for me."
In the hours after the final, just about the only time the players had to savor the accomplishment, one phrase kept popping up amongst them, as if repetition might reaffirm that it really happened.
"It never gets old to say you're world champions," Brian said.
It's asking a lot of her body to do it again, but national champions has a certain ring to it, too.