Alex Morgan’s move to Olympique Lyon should be great for her, if not the NWSL
Alex Morgan is leaving the league she has helped build, the National Women’s Soccer League, for a taste of life as a footballer at one of Europe’s best women’s clubs. She is leaving the Orlando Pride to join women’s powerhouse Olympique Lyonnais for the end of their 2016-17 campaign.
There will undoubtedly be a lot of hand-wringing about her move and what it means for the NWSL and the women’s club game in America. After all, Morgan is one of the most powerful names in women’s soccer, and she is a huge draw both for Orlando and the NWSL. She will return to the NWSL in June, only after having missed the opening of a new soccer-specific stadium in Orlando and several months of the season.
But for Morgan — the striker who has had to combat high expectations her own early performances have created — it’s a move that could help her become the player everyone has seemed to be hoping for.
Many of Morgan’s teammates on the U.S. national team have played in Europe, and when they came back to the NWSL to join in the fledgling American league, they almost all publicly said the same thing: playing in Europe taught them to be more technical and rely less on pure athleticism. In other words, playing abroad made them better.
If there is a player who can benefit from such an evolution, it’s Morgan, who the USWNT’s team trainer once said is as fast as some male players over 20 yards. Her game has been built largely on her natural, world-class athleticism and there’s room for her to grow.
“I think my strengths are getting in behind the back line and getting that first-time shot or just a touch and a shot. Evolving as a player, I want to be able to receive the ball in front of the back line and be able to turn and face up a defender and make those decisions as I’m running at defenders,” she said, citing it as a reason to go to Lyon. “I think this will be a great opportunity for me to evolve that part of my game.”
She has often been utilized in a one-dimensional way for the USWNT, particularly against the toughest international competition. It’s not necessarily all her fault — the USWNT’s tactics, whether under coach Jill Ellis or predecessor Pia Sundhage, have often relied on direct balls over the top, and it’s forced Morgan to depend on that service. Morgan’s speed to chase down long balls and her ability to muscle off defenders shoulder-to-shoulder has made her particularly dangerous in utilizing such a direct game plan. But doing that over and over has limited her progression and led to a bit of a career plateau that is now several years long.
As the USWNT’s early exit from the Olympics this summer showed, it’s also a vulnerable strategy — when she isn’t getting that service over the top, she can largely be neutralized. That’s what happened in the USWNT’s group game against France and to some extent against Sweden in the knockout round, too. For the Orlando Pride, where that is less the strategy du jour, Morgan has struggled to be the factor the first-year expansion team has needed.
Morgan, by her own admission, isn’t as potent face-up to goal and taking on a back line in front of her. But that may be the way forward for the USWNT if they want to stay competitive in an ever-evolving women’s soccer landscape — and also the way forward for Morgan to become the best player she can be.
That’s not to say the NWSL isn’t a good league — it is the toughest domestic women’s league in the world. While Lyon has scant competition in the French league and will really only be tested in the Champions League, the NWSL is a league of tight parity where every match, even against teams low on the table, is a slog. But the Champions League is the best women’s club competition in the world and getting onto that stage will challenge Morgan in different ways.
And yet, Champions League or not, the NWSL has been solidifying itself as the best women’s league in the world, a label that the signing of French midfielder Amandine Henry put an emphatic exclamation point on. Henry came to the Portland Thorns from Lyon this summer and citied similar-yet-opposite reasons as Morgan for her move.
“In France, the style of the game, it’s more technical, more tactical,” Henry told FOX Sports in Portland. “In the U.S., it’s more athletic and I want to progress more in physical [style of play].”
Morgan’s move isn’t necessarily a matter of a league or team being better or worse. It’s just about new opportunities and new ways to grow, which will be different for every player. It’s about becoming a more well-rounded player.
Of course, money is probably a big factor, too — and it’s a pretty good bet Morgan will be getting paid more than her salary with the USWNT and NWSL offers. Megan Rapinoe played for Lyon until 2014 and earned $14,000 per month, which is almost $4,000 more than Morgan’s max base federation salary, per collective bargaining documents. Given how doggedly Lyon pursued Morgan, there’s a good chance she is earning even more than Rapinoe did. But given Morgan’s massive sponsorship deals which earned her between $3 million and $5 million last year, her move is clearly about more than just money.
Morgan’s move does not need to be an indictment of the NWSL. Although it seems like a safe bet more Americans will make the move abroad for many reasons related to money and their USWNT contracts, the NWSL will still likely be the league of choice for USWNT players for years to come.
But there’s little doubt that Morgan — whose reputation has been outsized compared to what she has delivered in the NWSL — should benefit from a change of scenery. Being forced to build out the back and play technical soccer is not something she has been often forced to do. Fighting for playing time on a roster full of international stars isn’t something she’s had to do either.
And when she does come back to the NWSL, which should happen in June, perhaps she will make the American league even better.
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