ST. PAUL, Minn. — A little more than two years before she cradled the World Cup trophy in the same stadium, Alex Morgan attempted a quieter exit in Lyon. Minutes after playing the second leg of a Champions League semifinal with Olympique Lyonnais, she walked through the mixed zone oblivious to the surrounding interviews in French. Her eyes were locked instead on a phone as she watched the beginning of her husband’s MLS game several thousand miles away.
Family, friends and everything familiar were left behind. In that moment, Morgan decided the challenge was in France.
“I felt like it was important to explore European football at least once,” she said. “Whether that was six months or six years, it was important for me to experience something new.”
Morgan knows better than most the conundrum in front of Sam Kerr — remain playing where she is or head overseas to play? — in the waning weeks of this NWSL season and beyond. But as one of the sport’s best players moves toward, at the very least, a decision on where to find a challenge, Morgan’s now comes in staying put.
With Morgan held out of practice Monday, it appears increasingly unlikely that she will play when Kerr and the Chicago Red Stars continue their playoff push with a visit to the Orlando Pride on Wednesday (ESPNEWS, 7 p.m. ET). Morgan entered concussion protocol following a collision in Orlando’s game against Chicago on Aug. 21. She missed Pride games on either side of the international break, as well as both U.S. friendlies against Portugal during that window.
With the Pride in last place and out of playoff contention, and with Morgan’s body wearied by a World Cup in which opponents fouled the American co-captain at roughly the same rate that the local populace purchased baguettes, there is no reason to rush her return.
All of which means that August game might stand as the last time fans saw arguably two of the best three No. 9s in the world — along with Ada Hegerberg — on the same field in club soccer. At least for now. With every goal Kerr scores for Chicago (two more Sunday pushed her total to 15 this season and strengthened her case for back-to-back MVPs), the Australian star grows more and more of a must-have for European teams such as Lyon or, more likely, the handful of challengers with money and aspirations to unseat the reigning Champions League winners.
Kerr already ventured far afield once, of course, dividing her years between the short seasons in Australia’s W-League and the NWSL. In August, Football Federation Australia told the Associated Press that it made an offer — presumably not less than the $300,000-plus it paid her this year — to keep Kerr under contract for the W-League. Such a deal would leave the calendar flexibility for Kerr to continue with the Red Stars.
With Olympic qualification likely but not yet assured for an Australian team looking to rebound from World Cup disappointment, perhaps she will wait another year. Maybe more. Maybe the challenge of the world’s most competitive league and familiar comforts are enough. She won’t need to leave. Neither did Morgan.
“I think she just needs to go with her gut and obviously weigh the pros and cons,” Morgan said last week. “I can only imagine that exploring all of her options and finding a new style of play in another country could only help. We love seeing her in NWSL, and obviously, I think she raises the level of the NWSL. But I think for her, if I was in her position, I would definitely look in the next couple of years just to at least experience a different league.”
It’s all about timing.
Injuries limited Morgan’s impact during her short stay with Lyon, albeit without diminishing the benefits she accrued from competing against that collection of teammates in practice. Yet many of the teams interested in Kerr would presumably still fall over themselves to sign Morgan, fresh off a Silver Boot in the World Cup and always among the sport’s most recognizable stars.
But if the challenge in the aftermath of the forgettable 2016 Olympics was to test her limits, to prove she remained among the best in the world by venturing out into it, her objective these days is more collective. She has earned some stability in her professional life at 30 years old, while at the same time trying to ensure the NWSL a permanent place on the scene.
“I’m definitely trying to make home out of NWSL teams,” Morgan said of her time in Portland and Orlando. “I want to continue to promote this league. I think that’s why a lot of the players play in it. We want this to be the best league in the world, so we’re continuing to promote it, do whatever we can to magnify the situation and get as many fans as possible to go to the games.
“I think there’s only so much the payers can do, though. I think that the owners, the clubs, the league office or U.S. Soccer could also carry their weight as well.”
More irksome for someone who has two World Cup titles more recent than her only NWSL title is the Pride’s inability to provide an irresistible product on the field.
Despite the presence of Morgan and Marta, among other proven internationals, Orlando has one playoff appearance and a record of 29-42-16 since it entered the league four seasons ago. As with most of the league’s teams this year, the World Cup boosted attendance, but the Pride are still likely to draw fewer per game than they did in either of their first two seasons.
“Especially with the Pride over the last couple of years, it has been frustrating,” Morgan said. “I think the hardest part is the team really gets along well, we have great off-the-field chemistry. I feel like we are treated the best of any club team in the NWSL. … We have all the resources available for us, we have great housing, we have access to anything that we’ve asked.
“I think that it’s really difficult for that not to translate on the field. We’re hoping that we’re able to turn that around at the end of the season or next year.”
Stay or go. Familiar or unknown. For Kerr, that’s the choice.
Morgan knows that feeling. At one time, she needed to go. Now the challenge is in front of her.
“Patience is something that we all want to get better at within our NWSL teams,” Morgan said.