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The 11 Most Memorable NWSL Trades, No. 1: Alex Morgan goes to Orlando, triggering trophy-winning rebuild in Portland

Photo Copyright Hannah Di Lorenzo and Lewis Gettier for The Equalizer

The National Women’s Soccer League has completed its 11th year of operation, which makes it a good time to look back at 11 memorable trades that have helped shape the league.

The NWSL is no stranger to blockbuster deals, some of which have lived up to their billing while some have fallen flat (remember Sydney Leroux to the Flash for a first-round pick and the rights to Abby Wambach?). Still others have helped set precedents that live today.

Between now and the end of the year, The Equalizer will bring you one memorable NWSL trade per day.

You can find the entire series here.

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No. 1 – Orlando Pride acquire Alex Morgan and Kaylyn Kyle from Portland Thorns FC in exchange for the No.1 overall pick, the rights to the first Expansion Draft player picked, and an international roster spot…plus some bonus, after-the-fact add-ons. (Oct. 26, 2015)

By now you have probably figured out what our top trade is. Or maybe it took you by surprise and we left one out that you think belongs. But only one trade affected the short and long-term future of both teams involved so dramatically. In fact, for one team, its very existence hinged on its execution. Let’s explore.

The worst-kept secret during the 2015 NWSL Championship—the first held at a pre-determined site—was that the ownership team of MLS club Orlando City SC were full participants in the owners’ meetings. They were on the verge of bringing an NWSL team to Orlando. The initial projections were for the Orlando Pride to begin playing in 2017. But the owners wanted Alex Morgan, and more importantly, the Thorns no longer did. The time to do a deal was right then and there.

In the end, the Thorns pulled off a remarkable trade that allowed them an instant rebuild after the 2015 season that saw them miss the playoffs for the first and still only time. The Pride chased the trade for years.

It’s not even like Morgan was not good for the Pride. On the contrary, her best came at the back end of 2017 when she got together with Marta, as over a seven-game stretch between August 5 and September 7 of that year, Morgan had either a goal or an assist in every game. In two of the games, she did both, bringing her totals for the seven games to 8 goals and 3 assists. The Pride did not lose during that stretch. None of Morgan’s seasons in Orlando compared to 2017, but she remained the face of the franchise and was always a focal point for opposing defenses.

The Pride, with some help from other poor decisions in the trade market, took many years to get back into good draft standing. They had the last pick in the 1st round of 2016 and took Sam Witteman. They did not make another pick in the first two rounds until 2020. The 2017 season with Morgan’s dynamic play remains their only playoff appearance.

Morgan wound up being traded to San Diego in another deal that easily could have been in our countdown. Kyle made 17 appearances in 2016 and did not play club soccer again.

Now let’s look at what the Thorns got in the trade. They used the top pick to take Emily Sonnett who immediately helped anchor the defense and even scored a goal in the semifinal loss that year to Western New York. In her four years in Portland, the Thorns won a Shield and an NWSL Championship and played in another final. Sonnett left ahead of 2020 in another trade that landed the No. 1 pick from Orlando—and never suited up for the Pride.

With the expansion draft selection, the Thorns were able to land Meghan Klingenberg. The venerable left back remains in the Rose City and has now been a Thorn for two Shields and two NWSL Championships. And she was by far the best of the 10 players the Pride selected. (Ashlyn Harris was 2016 Goalkeeper of the Year but was generally well past her prime and Aubrey Bledsoe languished behind Harris before going to Washington and thriving.)

There were two other components to this trade not made public at the time it was announced. One was the Thorns acquiring the rights to Adrianna Franch who they signed December 10, 2015. After a year of serving mostly as a backup to Michelle Betos, Franch was Goalkeeper of the Year in 2017 and 2018. She was eventually displaced by Bella Bixby in 2021 and traded to Kansas City.

On January 13, 2016, the Thorns announced they had completed “the final piece of their Oct. 26, 2015 trade” when they sent that No. 10 pick that became Witteman for the rights to the next newly allocated player. That next player was Lindsey Horan. During her time in Portland, Horan turned herself into one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the world. In 2017, she scored the only goal in the Thorns NWSL Championship win over the Courage, while in 2018 she was named NWSL MVP. She went on loan to Lyon in 2022 and has since signed a permanent contract with the French giant.

Horan’s contributions to the Thorns are undeniable, as is this trade to the history of both the Thorns and Pride.

Here’s to another 11 years of wild NWSL trades. And of course, we’ll be here to break them all down for you. Happy New Year!

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