Among the most poorly kept secrets of the past month is the Orlando Pride’s interest in United States women’s national team forward Alex Morgan.
A trade is nearly complete to send Morgan — along with Canadian midfielder Kaylyn Kyle — from Portland Thorns FC to Orlando in exchange for U.S. defender Meghan Klingenberg, two international spots, and the rights to U.S. and PSG forward Lindsey Horan, per SI’s Grant Wahl. The Equalizer independently confirmed the trade of Morgan and Kyle to Orlando and Klingenberg’s eventual arrival in Portland (more on how below).
Orlando isn’t alone in its desire to acquire her — Morgan is the most marketable women’s soccer player on the planet and, despite injuries over the past two years, a dangerous goal-scorer who can be a franchise player for a club.
But the Pride actually had all the pieces to make the sport’s most recognizable face and superstar leave what has turned into one of the world’s most high-profile women’s clubs. The key ingredient is Servando Carrasco, who is Morgan’s husband. Carrasco plays for Major League Soccer’s Orlando City SC, owned by the same club which owns the Orlando Pride, the NWSL’s 10th team which was announced on Monday.
The couple’s desire to be able to live together is why she wanted to be traded to Orlando, per Wahl. One source tells The Equalizer that Orlando’s ability to acquire Morgan was a factor in club joining the NWSL now instead of waiting for the 2017 season. Others stress that Orlando was committed regardless and Portland had the ability to say ‘no’ to trading Morgan. It’s easy to understand why Morgan and her husband would want to live together.
Morgan’s appearance at several Orlando City SC home games this summer isn’t all that unordinary, given that her husband is on the team and she spent July and part of August recovering from a minor knee surgery. But it did increase the speculation regarding where she would play as Orlando became more apparent as a potential 2016 expansion franchise.
— philip rawlins (@OCPres) September 14, 2015
(Sydney Leroux won’t be traded by the Western New York Flash, as of right now, The Equalizer understands.)
Portland, as one might imagine, is less than thrilled with having to make the trade. But a source tells The Equalizer that they agreed to it in part for the league’s sake as Morgan was part of Orlando’s wish list for entering the NWSL in 2016. Wahl reports that Morgan also requested the trade for personal reasons.
As The Equalizer previously reported, United States goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris is expected to be Orlando’s goalkeeper in 2016. It is expected that the Washington Spirit will leave Harris exposed in the Nov. 2 expansion draft — instead protecting 2015 NWSL MVP Crystal Dunn and defender Ali Krieger as their two U.S. players — and that the Pride will select the Orlando-area native.
So how does this — the NWSL’s most high-profile transaction to date — actually happen? And who wins and loses? There are four teams to look at in order to answer that question, but Orlando and Portland are the primary ones.
Orlando gets Morgan, instant star power
Again, Alex Morgan is the most high-profile player in the National Women’s Soccer League. Most teams wouldn’t even dream of making a trade offer for her because they couldn’t offer enough without hurting the rest of their team, and more so because Portland was never taking offers. But leverage is a funny thing. Orlando has Carrasco on its MLS team and the desire to enter the NWSL but the power to say ‘no’ and wait a year. (There is a valid argument made by many already that Carrasco — who has played for four MLS teams in five season — could or should have made his way to Portland to unite the married couple. It’s unclear if that was an option.)
In Morgan, Orlando has a franchise player and really the one player in the game who can actually make significant impacts on attendance (trace the United States’ women’s national team’s recent rise in popularity since 2011 with the rise of Morgan, and you’ll find parallel lines). Orlando seems like a strong enough soccer market to sell tickets regardless of its roster, but this acquisition leaves no doubt that the Pride should at a minimum be in the top three in NWSL attendance. Club officials wouldn’t quantify their attendance ambitions when asked on Tuesday other than to say that they are high. Could they rival Portland’s numbers? At 15,639 fans per game, that is a tall order and shouldn’t be a benchmark, but goals in Orlando are lofty.
Multiple sources tell The Equalizer that Orlando doesn’t just want to be successful off the field — the club wants to win immediately. That’s no different than the goal the organization had for Orlando City SC, which looks like it will miss its target of making the MLS playoffs in year one by one position — potentially on a tie-breaker — in the Eastern Conference.
Now put into context what Orlando City SC vice president of development Tim Holt said when I asked him on a Tuesday conference call why Orlando joined the league now, and if the momentum of the Women’s World Cup was a factor:
“The dialogue with the league has been ongoing for the better part of a year,” Holt said. “So this isn’t something that snuck up us. From a club standpoint, it’s always been part of our strategic building plan to add a women’s professional team. There’s no question in terms of how we looked at the window of opportunity to be able to do this that the success of the women’s national team probably either accelerated that process or confirmed for us that the best timing to be able to do that would be to start in the 2016 season. Again, I will commend Jeff (Plush, NWSL commissioner) and his staff and the folks at the (U.S. Soccer) Federation for helping us to be able to do that.
“I think the success that we’ve had here with Orlando City and seeing how the market — how strongly the market has supported professional soccer at the Major League (Soccer) level has given us additional confidence that, A) We have the capabilities in place to be able to do something at a high level on the NWSL and to be able to do it for the 2016 season. So, yea, it’s been a several-month process and certainly the success of the women this summer was a contributing factor for us starting in 2016.”
A source tells The Equalizer that Morgan and Kyle will be unveiled by Orlando on Monday, a day after the U.S. women play Brazil at the Citrus Bowl. The team will build around Morgan and Harris in particular (all three could miss significant time this season if the U.S. and Canada qualify for the Olympics, as expected).
Morgan’s injury battles over the past two years are a concern. She only played in four games this NWSL season for Portland due to separate knee injuries. She missed the first half of last NWSL season due to a stress fracture in her left ankle, a layoff which totaled nearly seven months. Morgan had six goals and four assists in 14 games in 2014. Her best season came in 2013, when she tallied eight goals and five assists in 18 matches en route to helping the Thorns win the inaugural NWSL title despite a minor but scary knee injury late in the season. She didn’t play in the 2013 semifinal and played only 19 minutes in the final.
Now, in Orlando, she reunites with former United States national team manager Tom Sermanni. Will it be a winning combination like it was in 2013, when the U.S. went 13-0-3?
Portland begins the rebuild it needed
Morgan didn’t have to leave for the Thorns to re-tool, but her exit from the Rose City illustrates just how much things are going to change in Portland. Paul Riley already left after two years of .500 soccer, and Mark Parsons is now in charge after leaving the Washington Spirit for greener pastures in Portland.
In acquiring Meghan Klingenberg, Parsons will get a reliable fullback for a defense that has never been convincing — which is Portland’s general problem. Even when the Thorns won the NWSL Championship in 2013, they fought adversity and inconsistent play under Cindy Parlow Cone. Those ailments carried over into the Riley era.
Parsons will also have the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NWSL College Draft at his disposal, and he showed in Washington that he has an eye for college talent, instantly turning defender Megan Oyster into a bonafide starter and seemingly a star of the future and grooming Whitney Church as an outside back.
An English native, Parsons has plenty of contacts in Europe and strong enough eye for talent to use the extra international spots to his advantage. It’s unclear if Horan will soon come to the NWSL after just signing a new two-year contract with PSG, but it is conceivable that the 21-year-old could be lured back stateside if it helps her crack into the regular U.S. national team picture.
Some have compared this trade to the NFL’s Herschel Walker trade made between the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings in 1989, a few months after Morgan was born. The Vikings bet the house on Walker, sending five players, a first-round draft pick and six conditional picks to the Cowboys for the running back.
The Cowboys used that first-round pick to select now Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith, and by 1994, they were Super Bowl champions twice over with a roster which included six players acquired via the Walker trade. Walker didn’t live up to the hype, and the Vikings were stuck in neutral as they watched the Cowboys succeed.
Perhaps Thorns owner Merritt Paulson, GM Gavin Wilkinson and new coach Mark Parsons, while only begrudgingly agreeing to the trade, just had their own 1989 Jerry Jones-Jimmy Johnson moment, even if they don’t yet know it. With so many options coming back their way in exchange for Morgan, this could be just what the Thorns needed.
Houston and Seattle’s key, adjacent pieces
It has been widely speculated that Orlando would choose Klingenberg in the Nov. 2 expansion draft and then trade the U.S. defender to Portland as part of the Morgan deal. But Houston is actually trading Klingenberg first to Seattle Reign FC, which will leave her unprotected for Orlando to select and flip to Portland, sources tell The Equalizer’s Dan Lauletta.
Why the complicated extra step? Because it benefits both the Dash and Reign. The Dash get something (Amber Brooks) when they were going to get nothing by leaving Klingenberg exposed to the expansion draft, and the Reign get away with only losing Brooks, a player who played in 12 games but only saw 421 minutes of action this season. The Dash-Reign trade, a club source says, was worked out independently before the Morgan-to-Orlando trade.
Once Orlando selects Klingenberg from Seattle, the Pride won’t be able to poach anymore players from the Reign (the NWSL is yet to release official rules of the expansion draft, but they are expected soon). The Reign otherwise would have likely lost someone whom they would have rather kept, since they will only be able to protect less than half the roster from Orlando.
It’s rare that trade scenarios present win-win-win-win scenarios, but that might just have been the case in this blockbuster deal. If anything, Orlando may be the most hand-tied from the moves for giving up so much for Morgan, but only time will tell which team benefits the most.