Now a veteran, Morgan takes on captaincy, starts new phase of career in Orlando

Michael Chow-USA TODAY Sports

Now almost 27, Alex Morgan is a leader for the U.S. national team and a new franchise which is built around her. Can she translate her international success to the club level?

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LAKE MARY, Fla. – Sitting in her new all-purple uniform, Alex Morgan looks prepared to enter a new phase of her illustrious career.

Morgan climbed the scoring charts over the past five, ranking eighth all-time in U.S. women’s national team history with 64 goals. And she has been the United States’ most marketable soccer star, hitting the mainstream through feats like becoming one of the first women to grace the cover of EA Sports’ FIFA video game series.

But injuries have sidelined Morgan for the better part of the past three years. Now nearly 27 years old, and the unquestioned leader of the NWSL expansion club Orlando Pride, the player once dubbed “Baby Horse” is all grown up and ready for a fresh start.

“It’s kind of interesting – most people do well with their club and fight to do well with the national team. I’ve almost done the opposite,” Morgan told FourFourTwo during the Pride’s media day. “It hasn’t come quite as easily with the club because of injuries, mostly. With that sort of reversal, I don’t feel like I’m necessarily trying to make a statement or anything. But I definitely want to have a healthy, successful 2016.”

Pride head coach Tom Sermanni said Morgan will start Sunday night’s season-opener and should see “significant minutes.” Morgan rested during a pair of international friendlies this month against Colombia with a minor hip-pointer injury.

Orlando makes its NWSL debut on Sunday with a 10 p.m. ET match against the Portland Thorns, Morgan’s previous club. The Pride acquired Morgan last October, along with Canadian midfielder Kaylyn Kyle, in exchange for its first expansion-draft selection (later used on full-back Meghan Klingenberg), the No. 1 overall pick in the NWSL College Draft and one international roster spot for the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

Portland appeased Morgan’s trade request, made in order to be closer to husband and Orlando City SC midfielder Servando Carrasco.

"I actually reached out to them first because I heard a women's team was possibly forming and I wanted to let them know I was interested," Morgan said in October. "I feel like my time in Portland was a good one, but I was ready to move forward on to something new and something closer and more 'home' than across the country from my husband."

The trade was in the works for some time before the NWSL named Orlando Pride its 10th franchise, a “horribly kept secret,” as Morgan put it when news of the trade was made official. The trade also accelerated the club’s expansion aspirations by a full year.

Photo Courtesy Orlando Pride

Trading in red for purple. (Photo Courtesy Orlando Pride)

“Initially I think we looked at this as a 2017 initiative,” former Orlando City vice president of development Tim Holt said in December. Holt, who is now managing director of USL’s San Antonio FC, was given the task of helping launch a women’s team and USL team (Orlando City B).  “But things started falling into place a little quicker than we expected. Winning the World Cup was good momentum. We jumped at the opportunity and felt like our fans would follow that. So far, so good.

“There were a number of factors that played into why we moved on this a little earlier. As we went through and developed a business plan, we felt like we could make it work from the first year even playing at the Citrus Bowl for one season. Timing is a big factor. There is a lot of momentum. We thought there was an opportunity with the way the league was set up and some of the dynamics that were happening to put a very strong team together. So when we looked at all the factors the best opportunity to join was now. We think it’s the right decision. The last couple of months since we launched have only reinforced that.”

Now, this Orlando team built around Morgan has a goal in mind of smashing the single-game attendance record for its April 23 home-opener, and she is a major factor in achieving those on- and off-field goals.

Orlando City drew more than 60,000 fans each of the last two seasons for its MLS openers. The Pride could see 30,000 fans welcome the team home (Portland holds the NWSL single-game record with 21,144 fans last July). The Pride already has about 5,000 season-ticket members, more than seven of the nine NWSL clubs averaged in attednance last season.

A beloved member of the Thorns from 2013-15, Morgan expects to hear it from Portland’s boisterous, unparalleled fan base on Saturday. Portland drew more than 15,000 fans per game last season.

“Instead of hearing chants for my name, I’m going to hear a lot of boos with my name involved in them,” she said.

Morgan’s tenure in Portland was marred by injury. She missed nine games during the 2014 season due to a left ankle sprain suffered during national team training camp. Last July, following a Women’s World Cup in which she scored one goal in 436 minutes on the field, Morgan needed arthroscopic surgery on her right knee. The injury, combined with an ankle issue, caused her to miss all but four games of the NWSL season.

In total, Morgan tallied 15 goals and 11 assists in 36 appearances for the Thorns.

With her new club, Morgan embraces a new role as captain. Sermanni confirmed that Morgan will don the armband on opening night, as she has during preseason.

Morgan served as captain for the national team on Jan. 23 as per team tradition to mark her 100th international match, a 5-0 win over Ireland in San Diego. Prior to that, her last consistent captaincy came in college, at the University of California-Berkeley.

“I think this a challenge she relishes,” said Sermanni, the former U.S. coach from 2013-14. “Now she’s getting to that stage where she’s a senior professional who wants to be the best in the world. And she wants to add to that in being a leader on the team, on and off the field.”

Of course, Morgan will carry plenty of international responsibilities come summertime. And the Pride will have to find a way to sustain without their superstar, and as many as five other regulars in the lineup, in parts of the buildup to the Olympics this August.

With Morgan, the challenge simply boils down to her health. Can her legs carry the weight of immense pressure to perform for club and country?

“When she’s healthy, she’s the best forward in the world. She’s the best player in the world,” Orlando Pride goalkeeper and U.S. teammate Ashlyn Harris told FourFourTwo. “It’s a hard responsibility. Sometimes you have to play when you’re not 100 percent. Finding that balance will be important for her.

“She’s still young. She’s got a lot of years left in her. A lot of people are going to demand a lot out of her … but if she wants a successful career for a long time, she’s got to stay healthy.”

Morgan’s new beginning commences on Sunday, in a familiar setting from a different perspective.

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