- Associated Press - Friday, February 6, 2015

The confidence that Morgan Brian exudes on the field belies her unpretentiousness off it.

Brian is the youngest player on the U.S. national team and a rising star expected to earn a roster spot for the Women’s World Cup in June.

“It’s a great experience regardless of the outcome,” she said. “A lot of people would love to be in the shoes of the girls here. As a young player, you really want to be in this environment because it pushes you and challenges you. It will only make you a better player in the long run.”

The 21-year-old midfielder played for Virginia in the women’s College Cup final in early December before accompanying the U.S. team to Brazil for a tournament just before the holidays. She kicked off this year by winning her second straight Hermann Trophy as the top women’s soccer player, and was the first overall pick in the NWSL draft by the Houston Dash.

Now she’s in Europe with the U.S. team for exhibitions against France on Sunday and England next Friday.

The United States is busy in the buildup to the World Cup. Ranked No. 2 in the world behind Germany, the U.S. women are in one of the toughest groups for the opening stage of the sport’s premier event, joining Australia, Sweden and former American coach Pia Sundhage, and perennial African champion Nigeria.

“She’s been very, very important. Morgan is a part of this younger generation coming in,” coach Jill Ellis said during a recent conference call. “She’s adapted very quickly, she’s got a wonderful skill set, she’s a very mature young lady and I see her as a pivotal part of our team moving forward.”

Brian, who hails from tiny St. Simons Island off Georgia, has three goals in 19 international appearances.

During her senior season at Virginia, she was the only college player on the roster for the CONCACAF women’s championship, which served as qualifying for the World Cup.

She won her second consecutive Hermann Trophy after helping the Cavaliers to a 23-3 record and a spot in the national championship game, which the Cavaliers lost to Florida State. Brian had 41 career goals at Virginia and a school-record 43 assists.

Selected as the U.S. Soccer Federation’s young women’s player for 2014, Brian has been a regular with the national team’s programs since she joined the under-15 team.

“My club coach always told me: ‘The sky’s the limit with you,’ and I wouldn’t really believe him very much. I thought he was just trying to be positive,” Brian said. “But we had a very good club team and my teammates were very good at pushing me. For me, it was just about having fun every time I stepped on the field - that was my priority more than anything else.”

Brian got her first call-up to the senior national team in 2013 following her sophomore season at Virginia.

“She is clearly one of the rising stars, not only in the U.S., but the world. She will have a great future with the Dash and of course with the U.S. women’s national team,” Dash coach Randy Waldrum said. “Her flair and creativity will certainly help us produce more goals, but I’m so impressed with her tactical awareness and movement off the ball for such a young player. She gets it.”

Brian’s rise comes as the national team is looking to expand its development program.

The United States was a juggernaut as women’s soccer emerged in the 1990s, with stars like Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, Joy Fawcett, Tiffeny Milbrett and Kristine Lilly and a pair of World Cup titles in 1991 and 1999. While the United States has certainly not lost its standing as one of the world’s elites, other countries have been catching up. Germany took over as No. 1 in the FIFA rankings last month, ending a seven-year reign at the top for the Americans.

The USSF is exploring strategies, including a Development Academy and a 60-player residency program for promising national team players ages 14 to 18. There’s a residency program for boys in Bradenton, Florida.

There’s also the possibility of collaboration with the NCAA and the NWSL so that college players can also play on club teams. Ellis, USSF President Sunil Gulati and U.S. women’s technical director April Heinrichs discussed the plans recently before the team departed for Europe.

“For us to continue to compete for world championships and Olympic medals, we have to continue to evolve,” Ellis said. “The players, when I first met with them, I put up the quote: ‘If we sit where we are, we’ll get run over.’ I think our evolution and development is on a rapid course.”

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