World Cup winners
Swanson, Brian miss early soccer season to claim Under-20 title in Japan
As its 2012 season began, the Virginia women’s soccer team was missing two key members: head coach Steve Swanson and All-American sophomore midfielder Morgan Brian. While the Cavaliers readied for another promising season in Charlottesville, Brian and Swanson were halfway around the world, leading the United States’ Under-20 World Cup team in Japan.
As a highly touted prep-school prospect, Brian had trained with the national team since her senior year of high school and balanced college life with international play.
“It was obviously really hard over the two years, going in and out of school, playing with those players — they’re such good players — and all the work you had to do on your own,” Brian said.
Like Brian, Swanson’s chance to lead the U20 team came after years of experience with various levels of the national team. A former head coach of the U16 and U18 teams, Swanson had served recently as assistant coach of the U20 team before being tapped as head coach last summer.
“It’s an honor,” Swanson said. “It’s everything you think it would be to serve your country. There are not too many world championships that happen in our sport.”
But for both Brian and Swanson, the decision to head to Japan was not any easy one. The timing of the tournament meant they would miss a significant portion of the college season.
“For me to be able to do something like this, it takes a strong team, a willing team, and it takes an amazing staff,” Swanson said. “You have to have certain things in place: a great university, a great athletic department and a very supportive team.”
As Swanson adjusted to leaving his Cavalier team for a new one, he found solace in a familiar face among the 21-player roster.
“We’ve been together for a while now, and I’ve been fortunate enough to coach [Brian] for two years,” Swanson said. “It’s great to see your players being recognized on these national teams. It’s hard, because you have to be careful [not to play favorites], but deep down inside, there’s a real pride there, that she’s one of our own here at Virginia, and there’s a bond there.”
Swanson and Brian also had to adjust to competing with players who normally serve as rivals. Multiple competitors from the Atlantic Coast Conference — including athletes from Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest and Florida State — played on the U20 team alongside Brian.
“I have been paying with those players since before I was in college, so it didn’t play a big factor until my freshman year when we started playing each other and being rivals,” Brian said. “When we went back [to training] and started competing, it was kind of weird, but we’re so close now that it didn’t play a factor in it.”
The United States opened the World Cup with a 4-0 win against Ghana. Following a 1-1 tie against China, the team found itself matched against a formidable German squad — the reigning champions who had yet to concede a goal. The U.S. team lost to Germany 3-0.
“It was a tremendous German team,” Swanson said. “I thought it was our best performance in the World Cup up until that point. We felt real positive about the way we played for most of the game, how consistent we were, that we could move the ball against them and created chances.”
Advancing from group play, the U.S. corrected its mistakes from the Germany game to beat North Korea 2-1 in quarterfinals and advance to a semifinal berth against Nigeria.
“If we don’t lose the Germany game, we don’t beat North Korea in the quarterfinal,” Swanson said. “Maybe if we don’t lose the Germany game, we don’t learn the lessons we need to [learn] as quickly as we need to go into the knockout stage.”
Against Nigeria, the U.S. took the lead in the 22nd minute when Brian fired home her first and only goal of the tournament in front of more than 25,000 spectators at the Tokyo National Stadium, helping propel the team to a 2-0 win. Brian scored 186 goals during her high school career, but this goal was on a much larger stage.
“Anytime you can score for your country in a big game like that it’s really humbling,” she said. “I‘m glad I could score for our team, and it was a goal [early in the game] so that helped us.”
Advancing to the final required a rematch with Germany, but the team used the first game to its advantage, minimizing the errors that had previously derailed it.
“We made some mistakes [in the first game] that we fixed during the tournament,” Brian said. “Then in the final game, we just didn’t make those mistakes, and we scored early on them.”
The team had learned its lessons. In the Sept. 8 final game, the U.S. beat Germany 1-0. The squad was able to celebrate as the top U20 team in the world, and the coach who had worked to not play favorites finally swelled with Virginia pride.
“It didn’t come out until right after the final,” Swanson said. “Then I think [Brian and I] shared a longer embrace than most and I was real proud of her. The fact that I was there and knew all the hard work she put in makes it even more significant.”
With the World Cup behind them, Brian and Swanson returned to a Virginia team that was already in full swing. Without their coach, the Cavaliers began their season 0-2-1 but recovered to win their next seven games. Brian had to rejoin an already cohesive Virginia team, but her first game back left little time for jet lag — she debuted with the Cavaliers during a high-stakes Sept. 16 match against ACC rival North Carolina.
“I missed 10 games for them, so they already had those games under their belt, so I feel like I’m in the preseason with them, but they’re not,” Brian said. “I kind of have to deal with that adjustment, and try to get acclimated with them faster than I might have thought.”
Brian notched an assist in her first game back to help Virginia tie the Tar Heels 2-2. She has yet to tally another point for Virginia this season. Although she and her coach know getting back into midseason form will be demanding, it is a trade-off they deem worth making in exchange for a World Cup win.
“Anytime you can compete for your country and wear the jersey and the U.S. crest,” Brian said. “I think it’s something any player wants to do in their lifetime.”