3 U.S. Women Embrace European Adventure

Photographs by Matt Kremkau

by JACK BELL

Carli Lloyd went to Manchester City and England because, you know, the language thing (among other reasons). Crystal Dunn has parked herself in London with Chelsea for the next 18 months. Alex Morgan chose one of the top women’s teams on the European continent when she decided to join Olympique Lyon.

That three of the stars of the United States women’s national team would pick up stakes and choose to disrupt their lives by going overseas, even for a few months, struck many people as a big deal and a surprise. In many ways, however, the three women are taking advantage of a perfect storm to challenge themselves — seeking new experience in new environments — in mostly a down time for the national team.

“I’m always looking to improve as a player,” Lloyd, the two time FIFA Women’s Player of the Year, said during the recent SheBelieves Cup. “I get the best of both worlds — a challenge in England and then I get to come back to the NWSL.”

Matt Kremkau

Alex Morgan

Lloyd and Morgan will be back sometime in June, while Dunn opted to sign for a longer term with Chelsea for a simple reason — the U.S. women will not be involved in any major international play until qualifying begins next year for the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

“I’ve only been there four weeks, but I already feel a change in how I view myself as a player,” Dunn said. “It has been eye-opening. I’m not used to working 9 to 5, but I’m going in there early and I’m not leaving the training ground until 3 p.m. They are true professionals and I feel like I’m part of a team that lives and breathes and dies soccer.

“We take our careers very serious and there’s only a certain window that we’re allowed to experience these opportunities, and it is a down year. It’s unfortunate that people seem to take it as a hit to NWSL, but we’re just focusing on our careers. This is the time to do it and I don’t regret it. The next World Cup is in two years.”

Fewer than two years after winning the 2015 Women’s World and less than a year after failing to win a medal at the Rio Olympics. Now U.S. Coach Jill Ellis is dealing with a shifting landscape in the women’s game — both in the U.S. and around the world. New players and a new formation (three defenders) contributed to a lackluster performance in the SheBelieves Cup. The national team players and US Soccer still have yet to complete a new collective bargaining agreement. In past years, the CBA mandated the players play in the U.S. (read: the National Women’s Soccer League and its predecessors) if they wanted to be considered for the World Cup and Olympics. Matters may not be so clear cut, right now, but Ellis implied that her views have changed little.

Matt Kremkau

Crystal Dunn

“For players to gain experience on a personal level, the moment is right for them,” Ellis said. “We’re getting together on FIFA dates. It’s not a World Cup or qualifying year, so probably the window now is OK.

“Our league has seen players go over to Europe, but trying to make this team it’s sometimes about the tempo of our game and how we want to play. If you’re not in that environment to make our team sometimes it could be problematic. Yes, the very best teams can provide that. But for our players, the league [the NWSL] we have right now is a good creative platform for our success.”

Whether it’s male or female players opting to ply their trade outside MLS or NWSL, the reaction — shall we say the overreaction — to these moves can be puzzling, especially to the players involved.

“This is just part of the global football business,” said Jeff Plush, the former commissioner of the NWSL. “Players leave and players come in. I do think there’s been an overreaction. It’s all fine. What I like about soccer or sports is that when people leave other have an opportunity and we’ll see players rise to the occasion.”

Matt Kremkau

Carli Lloyd, center

For Morgan, Lyon has long been supportive of its women’s program. In England, established men’s clubs (like Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal — where the national team veteran Heather O’Reilly is now playing) are serious about their women’s programs and the English national team has benefited from that attention. As results showed in the SheBelieves Cup, the U.S. no longer is head and shoulders above the rest of the world in terms of quality, preparation and players.

Perhaps American soccer fans remain a little bit naive, believing that the U.S. should be the center of everything. But it’s a big soccer world out there. There’s nothing negative or shocking going on. It’s all soccer. It’s all good.

For Lloyd, much of the appeal of a short-term move to England is the prospect of playing for City in the UEFA Women’s Champions League, the FA Cup and the Spring Series.

“And there’s no language barrier,” she said. “We’ve been put in a different environment. It’s great to sort of feel the way the men’s game feels.”

Dunn summed it up: “With the men, no one questions if someone says they want to go to Germany. People say ‘that awesome dude, that’s amazing.’ For me, it’s been ‘why you leaving, why you leaving, why you leaving.?’ I think playing overseas and taking the information they have to offer is going to make me a better player in the next couple of years.”