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Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Alex Morgan becomes face, voice for new league

By Graham Hays

Let the record show Alex Morgan's first official public act as a member of Portland Thorns FC didn't require any of the speed, relentless energy or finishing instincts that made her an integral part of the gold-medal effort by the United States in the past summer's Olympics. Nor did it call on the smile and charisma that combine with those skills to make her a favorite of sponsors and more than a million Twitter followers alike.

Instead, the young superstar offered a comment on collective bargaining.

When U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and National Women's Soccer League executive director Cheryl Bailey spoke about the new league's allocation process during a Friday conference call with the media, they introduced Morgan as a special guest. After she expressed the requisite excitement about her destination and the same on behalf of her teammates on the national team and once she offered gratitude for the chance to pursue her dream without leaving the country, she added a caveat to the day's script of unencumbered optimism and largely un-enunciated details.

"With that said, we're still looking to finalize our negotiations with U.S. Soccer, both the women's national team contract and the [contract with the] league," Morgan said of the details still to be worked out for the national team as a whole and the participation of those players, subsidized by U.S. Soccer, in the NWSL. "And we're hoping that is going to be solved in a timely manner so we can focus all of our efforts on the league and getting it started in March."

Let's see Nike build a marketing campaign around that.

I think its finding that middle ground between sacrificing a little bit of what we want for the betterment of the league and for all of the players.

-- Alex Morgan

There wasn't anything particularly notable about what amounted to pro forma sentiments. Someone from the side of the players had to express them. It was nevertheless interesting to hear them delivered by Morgan.

Morgan won't turn 24 until July, several months into the NWSL's debut season. She is in the same age group as young stars in other sports like Kevin Durant, Robert Griffin III, Maya Moore and Mike Trout. All of them, at least to some degree, are asked to act beyond their years, to be spokespeople and embody professionalism (and be compensated accordingly) at a time in life when responsibility for many their age is remembering to tip the pizza delivery guy. But it's entirely possible none of them carries a burden quite like the one Morgan now assumes. Nor do they have an opportunity to play such a meaningful role in shaping the future of a sport.

It is little more than two calendar years since Morgan scored her first goal for the full national team (37 more followed in short order), not even two years since she played her first professional game. Forget the learning curve on the field for someone who went from the Pac-12 to the highest levels of international and professional soccer; that's the easy part.

"I would say that becoming a professional athlete I learned a lot of things very quickly," Morgan said. "I wouldn't say I was clueless before, but I didn't know as much what went on behind the scenes. And I learned that very quickly, being on this [national] team and going into World Cup qualifiers right away with this team. And now going through negotiations, not only with our national team contract but with the league contract as well."

This is her league in so many ways. Not hers alone, of course. But whose voice carries a greater distance in the public space?

Her skills were already evident when she was the No. 1 pick in the 2011 WPS draft and went on to win a championship alongside Marta and Christine Sinclair with the Western New York Flash in the league's final season. But she was a kid in a league that suffered mortal wounds before she ever arrived on the scene. Now this is her livelihood. She may play with the abandon of someone who would do this for free, but she is aware she cannot if she and dozens of free agents and rookies who will soon sign contacts hope to pay their bills.

"When I was drafted [in WPS], I wasn't really sure what went on and what kind of salaries are given, what the quality of the team was -- not only in terms of players, but coaching staff, training staff, training facility, that sort of stuff," Morgan said. "Now being on this side of it, we really wanted to not only fight for us, but also those players not on the national team that didn't really have a say. We had to be their voice. I think it's finding that middle ground between sacrificing a little bit of what we want for the betterment of the league and for all of the players."

The league placed Morgan in perhaps the most soccer-mad city in the country, a city in which the University of Portland women's soccer team packed Merlo Field even as two professional leagues rose and fell in other markets. And it placed her in Portland with Sinclair, a local hero from Canada who led the Pilots to two NCAA championships and, if we're being honest, outplayed everyone, Morgan included, in the London Olympics.

Under that spotlight, it is easy to envision Morgan as once again both the star and the sidekick, much as she sometimes seems alongside Abby Wambach with the national team.

"Christine Sinclair, I think, is the most well-rounded forward I've ever seen," Morgan said. "I think I will learn a lot from her. I was able to play with her in Western New York [during the 2011 WPS season], but being able to continue that now in Portland is great for me. And I think it will be great for the city of Portland as well, knowing her background."

And yet Morgan's days as a junior partner are just about at an end.

The goals and the smiles will keep girls wanting to be like Morgan when they grow up. The collective bargaining? That suggests Morgan is grown up.