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What if Alex Morgan left NWSL for Lyon?

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Would the league stumble without her?

United States v Costa Rica: Group A - 2016 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Olympique Lyonnais has apparently been courting Alex Morgan pretty hard, trying to entice her to their club to continue their habit of beating other teams in France’s top women’s division by five or more goals per game.

There’s this article, which says that Lyon might want to offer Morgan’s husband, Servando Carrasco, a spot with their men’s reserve team.

Then there’s this tweet from Jean-Michel Aulas, team owner, which he sent in response to an innocuously happy tweet from Morgan about enjoying the start of Euro 2016.

They’re not being very subtle about it, but Morgan hasn’t responded to any of the offers, at least not in the public domain. She seems committed to her role in NWSL, which is that of ambassador and public face linking back to the USWNT. When she moved from the Portland Thorns to the Orlando Pride, sources told Equalizer Soccer that she was part of the reason the Pride joined the league in 2016 instead of 2017.

But if Morgan did leave NWSL for a league that could not only pay her, but also her husband, and help ensure her financial future, what would that mean for NWSL, the WNT, and women’s soccer in the United States?

If Alex Morgan left NWSL, would a considerable chunk of fans leave with her? Would the Pride see their season ticket sales drop, or their average attendance shrink? Would it have implications for the legitimacy of NWSL as a top-flight league?

Part of answering this question means examining the extent to which Alex Morgan embodies women’s soccer fandom in the United States. She is one of the most popular and popularized faces of the women’s national team, and her presence may not be the only thing that makes a club successful, but it for damn sure doesn’t hurt. As Alex Morgan goes, so goes a nation of fans who aren’t necessarily in it for the team or the sport as a whole - a condition which isn’t unique to soccer, but certainly has been both a burden and a blessing to the development of the women’s game.

The Orlando Pride saw a whopper of a home opener with 23,403 fans in attendance, although that number dropped to 8,211 for their second home game. They’ve only had three home games so far in the first half of the season, but they’ll hit a stretch of four home games in a row through late June and early July. National team players will report to camp on July 1, which makes this a good time to compare the attendances for the two games before and the two games after Morgan (and fellow national teammate Ashlyn Harris) leaves.

There’s also the flipside argument to using Alex Morgan as fan bait, which is that the big NT names lure people to the clubs, and then hopefully the clubs capture some of that market by putting out a good product. Come for Alex Morgan, stay for the rest of the team. It’s just a fact of life that at the moment, WNT players have a lot of marketing power that teams would be foolish to pass up. Of course it would be just as foolish to build all their marketing efforts around big names, leaving them flopping around like gaping fish when those players are gone on NT duty, but striking a balance between the two approaches is doable and, at the moment, pretty valuable.

In that sense Alex Morgan went where she was needed; that her husband also happens to play in Orlando was a perk for sure, but wasn’t necessarily THE deciding factor. NWSL had a big expansion club starting up, backed by MLS money, that needed to make a splash, and so Morgan went after three seasons in Portland. Assuming Orlando gets on its feet after this season, is it the worst thing in the world if Alex Morgan jets off to France? Orlando isn’t a tiny independent club like Sky Blue FC, who routinely get 1,500 fans or less at games. Losing Alex Morgan hurts a bit, but it’s not a crippling blow, and Orlando head coach Tom Sermanni has plenty of pull to bring in other big international names.

What does it mean for NWSL, though, if their best and most recognizable players leave for bigger paychecks in other countries? What kind of impact does that have on NWSL’s identity as a top-flight league?

The current WNT CBA (yes, the one that is at the center of an ongoing conflict between the team and USSF) specifies that NWSL players have to play in the league for two years before they can go anywhere else, and has incentives built in to keep players in NWSL. Players like Christen Press and Lindsey Horan returned from European teams as part of some gentle encouragement from the fed that domestic players have a better shot of making NT rosters.

Alex Morgan is not Christen Press or Lindsey Horan, though. She’s done her time and, assuming the new WNT CBA in 2017 has the same provisions with respect to NWSL, would be free to tell USSF she’s clocking out for a fat French paycheck and a shot at Champions League. She’s also probably one of a couple players on that national team who could tell USSF to take a long walk off a short pier and still be on the roster. Sure, the team can score without her, but a) do they want to and b) USSF has made quite a big deal about her scoring and would look kind of foolish excluding her.

So Alex Morgan can leave, but what is NWSL without her? The league is halfway through its fourth season, and Morgan isn’t one of the top scorers, though she’s #2 in overall shots and shots on goal as of week nine. She has two goals and one assist in eight games. But she’s still used heavily as a marketing tool not just by Orlando, but by other teams, who tend to send out emails with lines like “come see Alex Morgan and the Pride play [insert their own team name here].” If you asked anyone to name the big players in the league, guaranteed she’d be one of the top three mentioned, if not number one. Regardless of her performance, she’s a draw.

On the other hand, just because her name legitimizes a league as having top talent, that’s not the only factor that goes into considering a league “good.” Marta plays for FC Rosengård in the Swedish Damallsvenskan, but not many would argue that it’s definitively the best women’s league in the world. There are other big names in NWSL, as well as a decent level of parity between the teams, that contribute towards its reputation. NWSL also has the benefit of being fed by the NCAA system, creating a huge player pool of solid talent competing for precious few spots, which helps maintain that parity.

Back to Alex Morgan and fandom. As with a lot of famous athletes, there are people who are along for the ride and will exit when the player retires. If some fans were to stop watching NWSL because of Morgan’s departure for France, were they going to keep watching the league when she was away for national team duty? If she was, god forbid, injured? Or if she decided to take a year off to have a child? So her fanbase is not necessarily a factor to take into consideration either, at least not as anything that would say she absolutely needs to remain in the league.

Alex Morgan’s club would probably be fine without her. The league would probably also be fine without her. US Soccer won’t be turning her away any time soon. And the women’s game in the states probably wouldn’t miss a step. Old fans of the game know what Morgan is up to; new fans of the game are welcome to learn or follow any number of other great players, because the USWNT has the luxury of having quite a lot of them.

In a way, it’s nice to contemplate a landscape where one famous player isn’t the be-all and end-all of the women’s game. The sport can start to stand on its own. There’s less need for someone like Alex Morgan to stick around out of obligation; instead she can go wherever is best for her. That’s good for Alex Morgan, that’s good for fans, and that’s good for American soccer.