This is The Alex Morgan Trade. The U.S. international striker is reportedly moving from the National Women’s Soccer League’s best supported team, the Portland Thorns, to its newest, the Orlando Pride. Going the other way are Meghan Klingenberg, the rights to Lindsey Horan, two international slots and the first overall pick in this winter’s college draft, though all for that is the small print – the subhead, listed far below the block font headline. Morgan, arguably American soccer’s most popular player, is the point of this trade, and when it happens, it will go down with her name on it.
But about those players going to the Thorns. That’s first team World Cup all-star Klingenberg, who played more in the tournament than Morgan. Horan has been touted as the future of the US strike force – 21 years old and averaging nearly a goal per match since skipping college to sign for Paris-Saint Germain. She’s not just a hope and a prayer either, with rumblings that she is considering a move to NWSL. The two international spots are especially valuable to the Thorns, a team with the worldwide reputation that and lure big-time talent. The return is so strong that the Pride’s first round pick, which is first overall, might be the weakest asset Portland got.
Trading a ton of pieces for a superstar is hardly new to American sports. It’s happened dozens of times, but rarely is the potential of a return been this high, or potentially this lopsided. This could be historic. This could be NWSL’s version of The Herschel Walker Trade.
In that deal, a notorious one that’s become the most famous in National Football League history, Walker was the superstar. The Dallas Cowboys sent him, one of the biggest names in the NFL, to the Minnesota Vikings, along with four draft picks. In exchange, the Cowboys got five players and eight draft picks. By the time all those picks were made, Dallas had netted future Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, five-time All-Pro selection Darren Woodson and Pro Bowlers Kevin Smith and Russell Maryland, among others.
The trade proved transformative for the Cowboys, overhauling their team and giving them a slew of talent alongside Hall of Famers like Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and a bevy of other Pro Bowlers. By the time that group of players were done, they had won three Super Bowls, and The Herschel Walker Trade helped kick it off.
It wasn’t as if Walker was bad for the Vikings either, even if he was never the superstar he was in Dallas. He was merely pretty good, becoming known in Minnesota as the guy the Vikings gave up a generational haul of talent for.
The Pride are betting that everything they’re giving up — some of it indirectly, like selecting Klingenberg in the expansion draft only to trade her — is worth it in part because Morgan can be a dominant player. They’re betting on double digit goals every season, and several more from her teammates as opposing defenses swarm to Morgan, leaving acres of space for the Pride to exploit. They’re betting on getting one of the best players in NWSL.
That bet would have made sense in 2012, or even 2013. She was one of the best strikers in the world then and, most importantly, playing regularly, but that isn’t the case anymore. Morgan has had four extensive layoffs due to injury in the last two years, totaling 15 months on the sideline. Even when she’s been fit enough to play, her injuries caused problems, as was on full display at the World Cup this summer, when she wasn’t near her best.
So what are the Pride trading for? They’re trading for a name, inarguably the biggest in NWSL, and one that will serve them incredibly well as an expansion club in a relatively new soccer market. That’s the only guarantee they have, with the other part of their return being hope that Morgan can get fit and in form again. That’s possible, but by giving away so much, they’ve put themselves in a situation where pretty good won’t cut it. To be competitive, they may need superstar output on the field. They need Cowboys Herschel Walker, not Vikings Herschel Walker.
Before their franchise has even played a game, Orlando may be giving up a generational haul. Klingenberg alone is a key piece, but Horan could be a future key for the national team, and if the Thorns are smart with their international spots and draft pick, this could give them nearly half of a dominant starting XI. Add that to the talent they already have in Tobin Heath, Christine Sinclair, Allie Long and the rest, all of a sudden Portland has the makings of a dominant team. Coincidentally, the Thorns just hired Mark Parsons to be their new manager, just like the Cowboys made The Herschel Walker Trade in Jimmy Johnson’s first season as their head coach.
A name won’t be enough for the Pride to avoid disaster. Walker was a name and, while names mean far more in a fledgling NWSL than they did to the NFL, that didn’t save the Vikings. Losing doesn’t pay. Orlando is going all-in on Morgan, meanwhile the Thorns are skipping happily away. They may have given up the face of NWSL, but they want more than that. They want wins, they want championships, they want a dynasty. They want what The Alex Morgan Trade to be their Herschel Walker Trade.
That’s not a bad bet. It’s certainly not any worse than the one Orlando is making.