Why Alex Morgan needs Lyon challenge to fulfill her potential

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The pressure of building Orlando and the NWSL will be gone for five months. Is that enough time to become "the best player in the world?"

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That Alex Morgan will play for Lyon in 2017 is, at this point, no surprise. What began as a bizarre social-media courtship from the club’s president this past summer turned into reality over the past few weeks.

Morgan, the world’s most recognizable women’s soccer star, will play for Lyon until its season ends this May before returning to the Orlando Pride in the summer. It’s a move which Morgan hopes will help take her game to the next level.

“I have big goals,” she wrote in a statement on The Players’ Tribune.

“I want to be the best player in the United States … the best player in the world.”

In theory, this move is a step toward doing that. The setting will demand of Morgan a day-to-day sharpness in training to earn minutes.

Morgan’s entire professional career to date has been in the United States. It truly took off in 2012, when she was third in FIFA World Player of the Year voting after a 28-goal, 21-assist year that helped the U.S. win the Olympic gold medal. That was a banner year when we truly saw what looked like the arrival of The Next Mia Hamm.

Everything since then has been complicated for Alex Morgan.

Knee and ankle injuries limited her for club and country over the next few years, including at the 2015 World Cup. She began that tournament as a substitute and eventually entered the starting lineup, but she wasn’t her 2012 world-beating self. Much of that was due to injury.

But the women’s game has also evolved exponentially over the past five years. Morgan’s best attribute as a forward is her ability to get in behind back lines and beat defenders with pace. It’s a dangerous skill, and one she can execute as well as anyone. It is, however, too one-dimensional – and Morgan recognizes that.

“My motivation is pretty simple,” Morgan writes. “I hope that this change will help push my game to another level. I hope that training with these incredible athletes each day, and learning a unique style of play, is exactly what I need, and that it will help me find that next gear. Importantly, I will also be immersed in a soccer culture that I believe is precisely what I need at this point in my career. It has always been a dream of mine to ‘live’ soccer and to compete in the Champions League.”

There’s a financial aspect to this, as there is with any decision in changing jobs. Lyon is one the most professional women’s clubs in the world. That requires significant investment in infrastructure and employees.

But Morgan stands to benefit on the field. Playing at Lyon – and, more so, training at Lyon – will force Morgan outside of her comfort zone.

In Portland, she was the first face of the NWSL’s flagship franchise, one which draws an unprecedented 16,000-plus fans per game. Last offseason, she moved to Orlando to captain a team that began play in 2016 based largely on its ability to acquire Morgan from the star.. There’s an intangible amount of off-field weight to shoulder in such situations. Fair or not, Morgan’s decisions more so than any other U.S. player affect not only her personally and her teams, but the promotion of the sport. Morgan isn’t going to play in Lyon for peanuts, but she’ll also sacrifice the spotlight at home.

There’s also a feeling of security. No matter how humble the player – and Christine Sinclair’s “if I’m selected” precursor to all statements sets the standard here – there is an understanding in there are indispensable players. It’s part of the U.S. Soccer culture that Jill Ellis is ostensibly trying to overturn in this new cycle.

In Lyon, Morgan won’t be the star; she’ll be one of many. Her arrival will draw attention, and she will likely score goals as Lyon faces largely inferior competition in league play. The week-to-week consistency of competition won’t be the same as it is in the NWSL.

But Morgan won’t walk in and start because she’s Alex Morgan. French star Eugenie Le Sommer and European player of the year Ada Hegerberg are the incumbent forwards. Morgan has legitimate, world-class competition. She doesn’t get that in Orlando.

Lyon coach Gérard Prêcheur and teammates will demand more patient, technical play. Check-down runs. Hold-up play. One-v-one dribbling. Creating space in tight confines around the box. If Morgan wants to be the best in the world, she needs to improve in these areas. She hasn’t seen those gains in the NWSL, and she is only with the U.S. national team so often. Lyon has 12 league games remaining this season and a Champions League quarterfinal date in March with Wolfsburg, which Lyon beat in last year’s final. Those are the most important games, and that is where things get interesting for Morgan.

Morgan is slated to return to Orlando this summer. The Pride, which finished its inaugural season with just 19 points from 20 matches, could be hurting by that point. She has an option to return to Lyon for the 2017-18 season, which would give her a full season of Champions League play and a more complete sense of what she could get from the experience (and a whole lot of soccer without a break). Will she want to stay in Lyon? Will she feel she needs to stay in Lyon for her development? Six months may only scratch the surface of how somebody who’s already great could become ‘world’s best.’

The answers to those questions won’t be black and white, with pressures back home resurfacing as Morgan continues to help grow a franchise, a league and a sport. It will be an uncomfortable situation, but that’s exactly the point.

Morgan’s four seasons in the NWSL haven’t taken her to that desired next level. A stint with Lyon could be what Morgan needs to truly become one of the world’s elite players, and she won’t unless she tries.

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Jeff Kassouf is the editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @JeffKassouf.