U.S. national team star Alex Morgan could play her first game for Tottenham Hotspur in England this Saturday after completing the highest-profile transfer women’s soccer has ever seen. On the surface, it’s a handy way for Morgan to pick up playing time ahead of next summer’s Olympics, with U.S. women’s soccer out of action for most of the year due to the coronavirus. But the impact of her move is likely to run much deeper and could shape the sport for years to come.
The potential for an elite league emerging elsewhere could mean greater opportunities for U.S. players.
England’s gain need not be America’s loss — the U.S. has faced the same struggle as other markets in maintaining interest between infrequent international tournaments like World Cups. The potential for an elite league emerging elsewhere, thanks to a wave of big women’s soccer stars led by Morgan joining English teams this summer, could equally mean greater opportunities for U.S. players and more regular interest for U.S. women’s soccer to build on.
Major soccer transfer deals often have a seismic impact on the sport’s ceaseless international power battles — these days even geopolitics can get dragged into the intrigue. Morgan moving to England might appear more benign than the oligarch-fueled or even state-financed big moves typical of men’s soccer but it does represent a meeting of two substantial forces. Morgan will be adding her individual star power to the world’s biggest soccer market by far, albeit one that is tilted almost completely toward the men’s game.
Despite attracting the wrath of Piers Morgan and other commentators for her tea-drinking celebration as the U.S. national team knocked England out of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, Morgan can expect a warm welcome in England. Her new club announcing her arrival on a screen in Leicester Square, home of London movie premieres, showed the great potential for both parties to oil their publicity machines. The Nike athlete’s Instagram following is larger than her new club’s account — despite Tottenham also having one of the best-supported teams in the moneyed men’s Premier League.
A comprehensive understanding of the intricacies of soccer tactics among the English public and media should please Morgan, and she is well-positioned to capitalize on the new attention coming her way. It won’t all be focused on the immense soccer ability that has helped her to fire the U.S. to two World Cup wins. Few could seriously suggest the British tabloid press has yet managed to shed its entrenched sexism, and Morgan has already been introduced in one sports section as “more than just a pretty face” that told fans, “Don't be surprised to see her wearing full make-up.”
Male soccer has a more diverse following than many appreciate in England due to its sheer popularity, but it has long harbored pockets of shameful misogyny, from boozy fans chanting, “Get your tits out for the lads,” at female passersby to high-profile broadcasters joking off-mic that a trailblazing female official wouldn’t understand the rules of soccer. The current coach of the Tottenham men’s team, José Mourinho, denied he had sexually discriminated against a female physio by calling her a “daughter of a whore,” but it was the physio, not Mourinho, who was fired after the incident.
As for the soccer itself, an honest assessment is that Tottenham is a “team below her level.” England’s pedigree in women’s soccer is no match for the U.S. Its national team has yet to reach the final of the World Cup, while Norway and Sweden have done a better job at challenging the dominance of Germany in Europe. An English club has won just one of the first 19 editions of the Women’s Champions League, Europe’s main club competition.
While the Premier League clubs — which have among them five of the world’s 10 wealthiest men's teams — operate the major women’s teams, their commitment has been questionable. The women’s team for Liverpool — the current English men’s league champions — has been called a token initiative by one of its former stars, and the club was derided for spending a huge sum on a fireworks display in an empty stadium in July to celebrate the men’s championship. Manchester United, the most supported and successful men’s team in the country along with Liverpool, had not even had a women’s team for years, until 2018.
But that could be changing. Morgan — along with four of her U.S. teammates who have also joined English clubs this summer — will find a wave of recent progress in England that they could jolt into another gear. Interest in the female version of the national game experienced an unprecedented boom around the 2019 World Cup — as British broadcasters went big on the tournament and England had one of their best-ever World Cups. Other major Premier League teams have provided more backing for their women’s team than Liverpool.
The trickle-down economics is becoming a bit more of a stream as the likes of Tottenham and Manchester City have financially kickstarted a previously nonexistent transfer market in women’s soccer.
The trickle-down economics is becoming a bit more of a stream as the likes of Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City have financially kickstarted a previously nonexistent transfer market in women’s soccer this summer, despite the pandemic. The upshot is that five of the top 10 women’s soccer players in the world will play in England this season. Shooting star Rose Lavelle, who joined Manchester City, is one of only two U.S. players in that elite bracket. But together with Sam Mewis, who also joined Manchester City, Morgan, Tobin Heath and Christen Press (both joining Manchester United), the Americans are providing a collective injection of quality in English football.
The Americans are all due to have a temporary stay in England, remaining under contract from U.S. Soccer with their player rights retained by U.S. clubs. None are scheduled to stay beyond next May, and Morgan may even return in December. It is easy to foresee a situation though where some want to stay on, return later or others join them.
The men’s English Premier League clubs seem to be starting to see how their wealth and influence can push them to the forefront of women’s soccer. This reality coupled with the quality and star power of a wave of exciting U.S. imports might just wrest attention away from the men’s game in the world’s most soccer-mad nation and, in doing so, change the sport for good.