Pride on the line: Will Alex Morgan haunt the Portland Thorns?

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The Thorns thought they got the best of the trade in 2015. That perspective could soon change drastically. 

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You could forgive the Portland Thorns if, in the face of their competition’s complications, they saw a silver lining when news came out this week that Orlando Pride and U.S. women's national team star Alex Morgan was kicked out of Epcot Center at Disney World. According to reports, alcohol was involved, voices arose, and a series of Orlando City players joined their more famous company in being asked to leave the park.

Before this story broke, the buildup to Saturday's National Women's Soccer League semifinal between Morgan's Pride and her previous club, the Thorns, was likely to rehash the past: three seasons that both sides would, for the most part, prefer stay behind them. When, Morgan parted ways with her first NWSL team two years ago, she did so with a championship ring, but she also left amid growing questions. Why had the Thorns, recognized as the most talented team in the league, never finished higher than third in the regular season? By the time Portland drifted to sixth and out of the playoffs in her final season with the club, Morgan was seen as part of the problem.

It would leave Morgan returning home for the final, potentially winning a trophy that would cast her Thorns departure in a completely new light. It would also leave Portland without a playoff victory since she left.

The Thorns’ issues always went well beyond Morgan, but she was emblematic, be that of the team’s inability to get its tactics right or the tense but cool detente that seemed to exist behind the scenes. While she was at the club, it always seemed caught in a polarized world, one where team dynamics vacillated between the quiet, no-nonsense leadership of Christine Sinclair and the gravity of Morgan’s stardom. While many players tried to bridge the gaps that existed between the team’s poles, the team’s results spoke to a three-year decay of the Thorns’ ethos.

During that time, Morgan went from nine goals scored to six, then down to only one in her final year. Injuries limited her to only 38 games over that time, though she managed to play a major part in the 2015 World Cup. By the time she left Portland, all sides were ready to move on, with fan skepticism matching the resignation both player and club felt.

Had Portland not received such a ransom for Morgan in its trade with Orlando in October 2015, there may have been a feeling of regret; or, at least, some wish-casting at what might have been.

But in the wake of Morgan’s departure, in a series of moves where she was the biggest (but not only) part, the Thorns were able to bring in Lindsey Horan, Meghan Klingenberg, Emily Sonnett and, with the international spots they acquired, pave the way for the arrivals of Amandine Henry and Nadia Nadim. Other assets went out to acquire those players, but in dealing Morgan, Portland created the flexibility to complete its overhaul and leveraged those changes to claim the 2016 Shield.

That success meant the Thorns never had a need to reminisce over Morgan’s time in the Rose City; on the contrary, here departure became a line of delineation. Morgan spoke of the opportunity to become a captain in Orlando, lauding all the other virtues that came with a new start, and the Thorns quickly turned their focus to the success they’d expected from day one. When the team hosted its first playoff game in club history later that season, a certain vindication came over the club. Portland, the results said, was right to move on.

In that vindication, though, there’s also contrast, as well as expectations. Beneath the huge crowd that showed up to see last year’s semifinal against the visiting Western New York Flash was reminder of wasted time, that Portland would have been hosting similar celebrations had it not spent three years in confusion. Fair or not, those years, in the minds of those who follow the Thorns, will always be anchored to Alex Morgan.

That’s something Morgan is unlikely to change, but come Saturday, it’s a narrative she has a chance to offset. If the underlying theory behind Portland’s first three seasons is that Morgan was part of the problem, then what better way to defy that logic than to return to her old home, play as well as she has throughout this summer’s NWSL return, and hand Portland its second consecutive home playoff loss? It would leave Morgan, walking victoriously away from what’s become hostile ground, to return home for next week’s final, potentially winning a trophy that would cast her Thorns departure in a completely new light.

It would also leave Portland without a playoff victory since she left. The last time the Thorns would have won a playoff game? Four years ago, in Rochester, New York, where Morgan and her teammates helped claim the inaugural NWSL title.

It would complete the 180-degree turn from the 2016 offseason, when Portland built a Shield-winner with the proceeds from the game’s biggest star. As Orlando struggled to a ninth-place finish and Morgan netted only four times in 15 games, the Thorns had every reason to think their decision to move on would never come back to haunt them.

Now, that haunting is near. Alex Morgan is not only back, but she’s back and better than she ever was in Portland. If she can lead the Pride to victory at Providence Park, an entirely new context gets built around her time with the Thorns.

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