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The Rehabilitation Of Morgan Brian

Bringing Brian back in was a gamble, and Chicago is starting to see it pay off

Photo courtesy of Chicago Red Stars

When Morgan Brian made her way back into the NWSL fold more than halfway through the 2018 regular season, it was natural to focus more on what she cost the Chicago Red Stars by her presence rather than what she was going to potentially add.

After a brilliant run of form in 2015 that orchestrated the U.S. Women’s National Team’s World Cup win, Brian has dealt with years of lingering injury and un-remarkable club experiences affecting her value as a full-season player. Her recent form caused her to struggle to crack into the lineup for perennial French league leaders Olympique Lyon, likely triggering her return to the U.S., and causing the Red Stars to lean into a gamble. Get Morgan Brian back up to speed, and she’ll change your midfield. But Chicago would have to succeed where other teams had failed.

No longer a USSF allocated player due to her stint in France, the necessary room to pay for Brian’s return was also the impetus for the third part of Chicago’s massive trade cycle, sending career-long Red Star Sofia Huerta to the Houston Dash, along with beloved depth player Taylor Comeau. Before even stepping on the field, her return had a real impact from the moment it was announced simply by way of what was lost to make her roster spot possible.

And Brian needed to make her club situation work this time. With USWNT gearing up for another major World Cup year, Brian was facing the possibility of being left behind. U.S. head coach Jill Ellis seems determined to get Brian back to her 2015 form, no matter how long that might take, but the USWNT midfielder pool is deep, and a plateauing Morgan Brian isn’t worth as much to the U.S. as say, a surging McCall Zerboni or the newly-reformed Julie Ertz.

However, the good news for all involved was that if Brian was going to succeed with an NWSL club, Chicago was one of the most likely to make that possible. With a solid infrastructure both in the city and in Bridgeview, Brian was able to slide back into the swing of things without too many adjustments. And she had a very good midfield to work her way into.

The most obvious connection for Brian in Chicago is her former college teammate Danny Colaprico, but she also has history with the Red Stars’ midfield mastermind Vanessa DiBernardo, winning the U-20 World Cup with her in 2012, and USWNT continuity in Ertz, Casey Short, and Alyssa Naeher. And while the concept of chemistry is sometimes overrated in the women’s game, her familiarity with the other soccer minds on the field has already changed the way the Red Stars play the game.

It’s no secret that the Chicago midfield calmed significantly mid-season with the return of Dibernardo from injury and the slotting of Ertz back into a center-back role, but another major part of that was the success of the tandem of Colaprico and Brian working together. Colaprico has been having a top caliber season as a holding six in the midfield, which has allowed Brian to roam more in a forward-facing eight spot, looking more towards goal in recent games than she has in years for either club or country. Brian and Colaprico also have a natural way of shifting and switching positions relative to where the other player is on the field. They are very good at knowing who is in a position to hold, and who should be making runs forward, and it takes less overt communication for them to be able to confuse opposition.

It also makes sense, as we continue to look for silver linings, that Brian fits more into what the Red Stars have been trying to become as a team than a player like Huerta, who remains an incredibly talented attacking midfielder. Chicago wants to possess in the midfield, make smart plays, and feed Sam Kerr. Brian at her best is able to read potential play-making situations as well as anyone in the game, and that specifically is a presence that the Red Stars are going to need against the North Carolina Courage.

The long-term effects of the Brian trade have still yet to be felt, and with the short life-span of player/club relationships in the NWSL, it’s possible they never will be. But Brian might just be the exact right player for right now, which is a remarkable turnaround for both the club and for Brian herself. The Chicago Red Stars are playing smarter soccer than they possibly ever have, and the personnel on the field have the ability to unlock problems as they arise. It’s an exciting prospect, to be sure, and one to watch on Sunday.