Alex Morgan, the star forward for the U.S. national team and the Orlando Pride, has signed a half-season contract with Olympique Lyonnais of France, the club regarded by many observers as the best women’s club team in the world. Morgan will join Lyon, the reigning European and French champion, in January and stay with the team through the end of the current season, which could run as late as June 1 (the date of the women’s Champions League final).
Morgan will rejoin the Orlando Pride, her NWSL team, in early June.
“A ton went into making this decision,” Morgan told SI.com. “Being in Orlando, I feel like I have the ideal setup with my husband [Servando Carrasco] playing for the same club [ownership] that I play for. We’re really happy with that. But at the same time I felt like I had to follow my gut, and my gut was telling me I needed to explore something to continue to help evolve myself as a player and challenge myself a little bit more.”
Morgan, 27, said she was happy to be healthy again in 2016, but she was disappointed with the U.S.’s quarterfinal exit from the Olympics, as well as her own personal performance in the Olympic tournament. Before going on a long-planned European vacation with her husband and family, Morgan visited Lyon for two days at the end of November to look at the facilities, observe practices and meet people at the club.
“Every training is competitive,” Morgan said of Lyon, which features world-class players from Germany (Dzsenifer Marozsán), Norway (Ada Hegerberg), Japan (Saki Kumagai), Sweden (Caroline Seger) and France (Wendi Renard, Eugénie Le Sommer, Claire Lavogez, Camille Abily, Amel Majri and Élodie Thomis). “Going into a competitive environment like that where I need to show my best self every single day is going to definitely challenge me and make me prove my best every single day. I like that challenge. I also want to prove that I’m one of the best if not the best in the world at my position, and I think there’s no better way than to go in and play with the best.”
Usually when you ask players which aspects of their game they want to improve most, they say “everything.” So it was refreshing to hear Morgan spell out what she thinks she does well and which areas of her game need improvement.
“I think my strengths are getting in behind the back line and getting that first-time shot or just a touch and a shot,” Morgan said. “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. I think this will be a great opportunity for me to evolve that part of my game. I think also just cleaning up my finishing inside that 12-yard area is always something I’m looking to improve on. On the national level or Champions League or the French league, you’re not going to get that many opportunities, so I want to be totally prepared for that. And another part of my game which I feel like I’ve done better at throughout the years but still feel I can use a lot of improvement on is my aerial presence.”
Morgan said she had spoken to a number of people about the decision: U.S. coach Jill Ellis, who gave her blessing; U.S. teammate Megan Rapinoe, who had played for Lyon in the past; and former club teammate Seger, who had positive things to say about the club. Once Morgan visited the club, she said, she felt comfortable signing a half-year contract.
“I considered signing a longer deal,” Morgan said. “I don’t know if I necessarily feel comfortable signing something that’s 18 months. I want to see where I am after the six months: As a player, as a person, whether I’m happy.”
Morgan added that a deciding factor in her decision to sign with Lyon was the ability to play with Orlando again starting in June. She said her husband, Carrasco, is renegotiating his deal with Orlando City, and they expect he will play with Orlando in 2017.
Morgan did say that the uncertainty over the labor situation between the U.S. women’s national team players and U.S. Soccer had an influence on her decision to sign with Lyon. The collective bargaining agreement expires on December 31, which means the contracts for Morgan and other national team players at the international and club level—U.S. Soccer pays the club salaries of national team players—will expire at the end of the month.
Morgan said she wasn’t sure what would happen in the coming days of labor talks.
“We’re having a lot of team discussions,” she said. “Obviously with the end of the year coming close now, we’re on conference calls regularly with the team in discussions of that. We want the deal done as soon as possible, but we also want the right deal, so we’re willing to wait for that. I’m not sure a strike or a lockout is in the future. I think both parties are really working together to get this deal done and get it done in a way that we’re both happy.
“I also had to look at the fact that in the next three months we would maybe be playing two to three weeks total with the national team, and then we’d have to find training on our own elsewhere wherever we’re stationed. So for me, with that uncertainty of the CBA come 2017 and … having to find my own training during the months of January and February, I thought this was the right decision.”
On a lighter note, Morgan said she enjoyed meeting Lyon club president Jean-Michel Aulas, who had undertaken a public campaign on Twitter to gain Morgan’s interest in coming to Lyon.
“We actually had a laugh about it,” Morgan said. “I brought it up and was just joking about it. Obviously, he wasn’t serious about recruiting me through social media, but at the end of the day it drew a lot of attention from my fans. I have to hand it to him. Lyon wants to put their club on the map globally, and they’re invested on the women’s and men’s sides to do that. He’s passionate about women’s football.”
Morgan will be eligible to play for Lyon in Champions League, which resumes in March, when Lyon meets Germany’s Wolfsburg in the quarterfinals.
“I want to make it clear that this is purely for developmental reasons,” Morgan said. “I still want to grow the game in the United States. I still want to help the NWSL. That’s important to me. I think I’ve shown that through my entire time being a professional soccer player. But I need to look at what makes me a better player and what helps elevate my game.”