Thorns Two-Top

Stacey Neve

Subject: Alex Morgan

If you're reading this, you're probably a Thorns fan, probably interested in Alex Morgan as a Thorn, and probably have an opinion about Alex Morgan as a Thorn. I've been trying to figure out a way to get a Stumptown Footy community discussion going about all of those things, especially in light of Morgan's recent injury, and also her recent tweeting about the Western NY Flash's cruddy webstream last weekend.

In that context, Equalizer Soccer's excellent Boston-based writer Meg Linehan --who was in town to watch the Thorns' 3-2 loss to FC Kansas City on Sunday, August 4-- and I decided to have a roundtable of sorts. Although, it being just the two of us, it's not really a roundtable. Maybe it's a two-top? Regardless, we free formed it through a Gmail chat a couple days ago.

We figured we'd just post our conversation in the hopes that readers would be interested in chiming in with their thoughts in the comments section. So here's our slightly edited chat below (WARNING: It's kind of long). Let us know what you think about La Morgan, and also, if you want, what you think of this format.

MEG LINEHAN: OK, so for Alex, I was trying to make a list of everything we had talked about when I was out there. Plus the reaction to her tweet / showing she's a human being who (gasp) curses and has thoughts in her head.

But even like, when I was at the Breakers game, I was down talking with the photographers and they were all like, "Man, Morgan whines the entire game and just yaps at the ref."

And I was just like, if she was on the Breakers, you probably would not care. Leslie Osborne did that ALL OF LAST SEASON, everyone thought it was amusing.

JONANNA WIDNER: Right, or, hello, Abby Wambach makes a pretty healthy habit of it as well.

ML: Yes.  Exactly. Syd does it a little, although HAO yaps at the ref and gets annoyed far more easily. No one talks shit about Heather O'Reilly.

JW: So, is the issue here that Morgan isn't supposed to do that? Like, as America's Soccer Queen?

ML: I think people expect to her to this nice girl, and nice girls don't complain.

What's weird is the female fan reaction to a lot of Morgan stuff this year, because I'd expect normal woso fans to not get annoyed?  But instead there's this split because of the Thorns and this lingering resentment that is 100% focused on Morgan.

It's the LBJ taking his talents to South Beach sort of resentment, that people are mad that a player might want to be on a team that provides optimal conditions for success.

(Except Morgan had really no previous ties, beyond tenuous ones to Seattle.)

JW: Agreed. My thought is that, this resentment is based on a false construct, too: Alex Morgan has been turned into America's Woso Soccer Fantasy Player. So at age 24 (barely), she's wearing this mantle.

And is really stuck between a rock and a hard place. One the one hand, she has to perform on the pitch, and success there is based on being the opposite of America's Nice Girl.

On the other, she has to be America's Nice Girl.

ML: AND America's Fantasy girl too.  Like: http://www.thebiglead.com/index.php/2013/07/17/alex-morgan-wore-a-scintillating-outfit-to-espns-body-issue-party/

Like the alt text on that is: Alex Morgan to star in, "wow, what an ass."

JW: Good lord, I hadn't seen that.

ML: Then there are the two posts about her wearing bikinis in Hawaii.

So let's see: Alex Morgan is so far: the girl next door, America's Woso Fantasy Player, America's Nice Girl, America's Soccer Sex Symbol, The Next Great American Hope, The Next Mia Hamm, an author, and oh yeah, a Thorn.

JW: Huh. Wonder why she hasn't looked particularly happy on the pitch. Wonder why she looked so exhausted the last time I saw her at the stadium. That is a ton to put on a pair of 24-year-old shoulders.

ML: (WHY AM I READING THE COMMENTS ON THE BIKINI POST, WHY.)

Like I'm 29 and I'm lucky to feed myself some days.

JW: (DON'T READ THE COMMENTS ON THE BIKINI POST YOU WILL WANT TO STAB SOMEONE)

ML: Oh, and, not to mention, Alex Morgan is supposed to be the face of the NWSL and the one who single-handedly ensures the league survives.  Pretty sure that's the vibe I get from most mainstream coverage.

JW: Yeah, I mean, it seems pretty clear that responsibility has been thrust upon her. Which is just absolutely crazy, if you ask me. It's also such an American thing, to choose a single face for a large entity.

That stuff sells, to be sure. It just seems like there's an added element of double-standard with Morgan.

ML: No one's expecting LeBron James to make the... Toronto Raptors function in a league. I think Mia Hamm had some pressure in WUSA, but it was split more effectively between that team.

ML: I also feel like Abby gets to focus on WNY, HAO focuses on Boston, and so on, but when Alex Morgan comes to town, there's this: you are bigger than your own team right now. Morgan scores in any city, the cheer is generally as loud as the home team, if not louder.

JW: Ashlyn Harris just died a little inside when you wrote that.

ML: Some of that is the demographics NWSL has chosen to focus on.  (Another story.)  But even amongst the woso fans who can name every player on the field - witnessing a Morgan goal transcends a NWSL match.

JW: It's true, and I can get behind that somewhat. I mean, I feel lucky that she's playing in my town, and I've gotten to see a lot of those goals, and they *are* transcendent. But I can't imagine what it's like to have every move have this ripple effect:

The awkwardness of already being placed above your teammates before you even get to camp.

The idea that you have to be nice to EVERYone about EVERYthing, or else THIS LEAGUE WILL FAIL.

ML: Plus the added bonus of having USWNT duties pull you in and out of camp for most of the preseason.  Can't have helped build team chemistry.

And that was a league-wide problem, but one that must have been particularly strange for Morgan.

JW: Plus the book signings, the ESPYs, the interviews, etc. She was in and out of training all season. How much of that is on her, and how much of that is pressure from the league, US Soccer, and Nike to be the It Girl?

ML: The Bridgestone commercial too. Just seems like it's never-ending.

JW: Oh yeah. And the Fox commercial. Plus that nutters last two weeks for the Thorns

ML: Right. And now add in the pressure of trying to come back from an injury that could have been so much worse than it ended up being.

To try and salvage the post-season, even if they have to make it through the semifinals without her... how do you have a championship match with Alex Morgan's team and no Alex Morgan?

JW: In the US Alex Morgan Soccer League

ML: (Much catchier than NWSL.)

JW: So, but here's the thing:

A lot of Thorns fans have ripped on her pretty hard in the latter half of the season. Their argument being that:

A. Morgan isn't scoring enough.

B. Morgan is being lazy, not making enough runs.

C. Morgan is being a diva on the pitch.

ML:  Point C is the one I see the most outside of Portland.  (No one else will complain about Morgan not scoring enough, unless they're at a game featuring Alex Morgan.)

The attitude has some positives and negatives for me.  On the one hand, I like her being assertive on the field.  I want her arguing calls.  I want her getting into it with opposing players.

I want to see her want to win, more than anyone else, no matter what. And if it spills into getting into it with Des Scott, then YES.  Let's do it.

On the other hand, the reactions to fouls - the annoyance with that I understand.  It can grate, but I still think she's being targeted out there more than any other player on the pitch, and with good reason.

She's also 24.

JW: Agreed. She really gets the Shaq treatment, getting hammered all around. And I love Sassy Morgan. It's when Sassy Morgan turns into Making Bad Decisions Morgan that it's not so great. But overall, she's no more mouthy or chippy than anyone else. And also, she has no other choice but to fight back. Otherwise opponents will just bowl right over her.

As far as A, well, she has eight goals, five assists.  Leading the team. She also has the most shots in the NWSL. Which shows a lack of efficiency, sure...

ML: She's admitted (to me actually in a postgame interview) that she needs to work on keeping her shot down. It's not like she isn't aware that there's an element of her game to work on.

JW: Yeah, and I think it bleeds into my thoughts about B, which is: She's worn herself out.

A lot of the shots she's missed have been 1v1. Shots she usually makes.

ML: She could have 15 goals this season, if things went a little differently.

And to get into a point I just read in your game post: how much is the internal team culture weighing on her as well?

How much are team formations and strange subs playing into Alex's "lackluster" eight goals on the season?

If she had Sinc up top with her this entire summer, would we be looking at 12 goals, 10 assists?  That same sort of give-and-go she has with Abby?

JW: And to go along with that, would Mana Shim be having the season she's having if it weren't for Morgan?

ML: You take Foxhoven off the field in the 80th minute and add on Libby Guess [in the FC Kansas City match].  If Foxhoven stays on, does she slip Alex the ball and they tie that game against FCKC?  There's a lot of second guessing happening in Portland.

Mana Shim has been great, but yes, she benefits hugely from all the attention getting pulled to Morgan and Sinclair.

JW: That's the thing, too, about folks saying Morgan's been slacking on her runs. It's her runs, and her shots, that have opened Mana's game up for her.

ML: I just 100% don't buy the "Morgan is slacking on her runs" comment. Even if she is just standing there, she warrants a defender.

I think there's generally a problem - across the board - with national team strikers struggling to have touches on both sides of the ball. When they do put in a defensive effort, it becomes a different game.  I see it a lot in Boston with Leroux. But I don't think it's something people can call "An Alex Morgan Problem" because it's not just her.

JW: No, but more than any player, it becomes an Alex Morgan Problem, because of what we were talking about earlier.

ML: Right. I wonder if it stems, even a little, from lingering frustration from Abby's style of play. And not wanting Alex to head down the same path of being opportunistic or this floating presence up top who simply expects the ball at her feet.  (This is over-simplifying complaints about Abby, which I think she's done a lot to negate this year actually.)

JW: Yeah, I mean, I do have criticism of her, and my main one is that she does seem to want the ball at her feet in that way. But, again, it's an adjustment for a 24-year-old who has had a lot just handed to her.

ML: Right.  I just think there are two ways this is going to go for her in Portland.  One - she's going to learn from all the internal stuff, the schedule, balancing everything, and figure out what works for her.  Two - she's going to burn out, or get tired, or get hurt.  Which came damn close to happening once already.

That's where the uncertainty of being a 24-year-old with the weight of a league and a nation on her shoulders comes in.  I think we've seen some of the cracks around the edges this season.  But does an offseason, maybe a coaching change, maybe a trade or two help ease up on the pressure?

JW: It's gonna have to. Here's something interesting: A quote from the presser after the Chicago game: Morgan (on difference between this league and last [and yes, fools still be asking those questions at this point in the season]: "This feels different to me personally because last time I was in the Western New York Flash in the WPS a couple years ago and I wasn't a clear starter, and I wasn't playing 90 minute games, every single game. I wasn't having the impact that I have on this team."

ML: ‘I wasn't having the impact that I have on this team.' Oh kid, you don't have to do it all.

But to be fair, there are players that want that responsibility.  That want the ball in stoppage time with three defenders converging on them. She's one of them.

JW: We should wrap this up, but can we talk about her tweet yesterday real quick?

ML:  Yes. I will attempt to stay rational.

And not annoyed that when she uses her twitter to show a brief flash of personality/being a human being that she gets comments about her "immaturity" or how she's being "bush league" for calling the league out for questionable-quality streams.

JW: May I join you on this Irritation Train? Because, seriously. That tweet was funny, and it was also true, and like you said it showed a little glimpse of personality. And if the world craps on her for it, then she's just going to retreat further into her protective shell, which is where she usually has to be anyway.

And that stream sucked.

ML: Granted, I never find swearing offensive, but she's 24.  I'm pretty sure she has said the f-word too.  You see other players on the same teams (US and Portland) and they seem to have the ability to be a little more off the cuff.

Some of it is her marketability that's probably going to handcuff her for at least a few more years.  She's got to keep the kids in mind, and all.

‘But this whole thing of: Alex Morgan swearing about a WNY Flash stream?  This isn't what I signed up for, this isn't what I expected!' That's not fair.

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