Pride & Passion
Alex Morgan is one of the best soccer players in the world. But her real game is being a role model.
Morgan on the pitch for the Pride
The line at the Publix isn’t at the checkout counter. Instead, it starts near the deli section, where Alex Morgan sits at a table as people queue up not to check out, but to check her out—to get an autograph, a photo and perhaps a few words with the woman who was introduced to them as the best female soccer player on the planet. The line zigzags between crisscrossing ropes in front of Morgan before snaking through the store, out the front door and along the sidewalk. At the end of the line, two weeks shy of her ninth birthday, is Payton Pitman.
Like Morgan, Payton is in her soccer gear, fresh from a Saturday afternoon game in nearby Geneva. Morgan has arrived at the Altamonte Springs Publix from a soccer camp held at Orlando’s XL Soccer World. An hour evaporates, and so does the long line, until the only person remaining is Payton Pitman. As she finally stands before her idol, the girl’s body convulses, her face contorts, streams of tears flow.
“Oh no, don’t do that,” Morgan coos consolingly, wrapping an arm around the youngster. “You don’t want the picture to show you crying.”
The little girl tries. Her body heaves as she sniffs at her tears.
“What position do you play?” Morgan inquires.
“What’s the name of your team?”
Posing with Payton Pitman—post-tears—at Publix ( COURTESY OF ALAN AND CANDY PITMAN)
And so it goes, gentle questions designed to distract the girl from her overwhelming flood of emotions, until Payton Pitman can properly pose for a photograph, smiling.
Later, her parents, Alan and Candy Pitman, who have season tickets to Morgan’s Orlando Pride soccer games, shake their heads in unison. “That’s so unlike her,” Alan says of his daughter. “I’ve never seen her act that way.” Candy concurs, adding, “She hardly ever cries. She’s tough. And on the way over she had so many questions she wanted to ask Alex.”
As security whisks Morgan out the back of the store, Payton is unable to explain why the sudden emotion.
“I was just…happy,” she offers, adding that what she likes best about Alex Morgan is “that she keeps trying. She never gives up. Even if she loses the ball, she keeps trying.”
“Oh yes,” Candy says, elaborating on Morgan’s influence on her daughter. “Payton never gives up. Even in school. On her tests, she gets all A’s.”
Weeks later, Morgan can’t get the image of the crying little girl out of her mind. Not that she wants to. The raw human reaction, the way girls like Payton Pitman look up to her, is what fuels her. Unlike so many professional athletes, Morgan doesn’t just consider herself a role model; she embraces the responsibility, viewing it as a duty, if not a mandate.
“I want to inspire girls,” she says. “I want to keep them active. I want them to be confident and believe that they can have dreams and reach their goals. I want them to be able to look at me and see someone they can emulate, someone they can actually see and follow.”
Morgan could easily cocoon herself in her career. At 27, she is in the sweet spot of her prowess on the soccer pitch, as well as someone with the ability to pitch products. Her agent, Dan Levy, says Morgan’s income from commercial endorsements is at a few million dollars a year, with companies like Nike, Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble peppering her portfolio. She is the face of U.S. Women’s Soccer and possesses all the requisite ingredients to cross over from a female star athlete to a multimedia darling, the type that makes her a magnet for Madison Avenue—attractive, intelligent and articulate. She strikes an All-American girl image with her husband, Orlando City Lions midfielder Servando Carrasco, whom Morgan met when both were students at the University of California-Berkeley.
She could focus on just that, but Morgan’s worldview won’t allow it. Instead she is at the forefront of a movement in women’s soccer, demanding equal treatment for the U.S. Women’s National Team players, commensurate with their male counterparts. A year ago, five players on the national team, including Morgan, filed a federal complaint against the U.S. Soccer Federation that alleged wage discrimination. And there are other issues—doctors, trainers, gear, facilities, modes of travel, hotel accommodations that are not up to the same standards as the men.
“Not everything we’re fighting for is just salary,” Morgan says. “This is not just about a dollar sign. I want to walk away knowing we were fully invested in the sport. We want to make sure it’s in a better place than what we came into. It won’t all happen during my playing time. But hopefully our fight will pay off down the road.”
She certainly isn’t afraid to speak out. When Morgan played for the Portland Thorns in 2015, she used Twitter to famously call out the disparity for players in the National Women’s Soccer League—the U.S. women’s pro league—when the Thorns were staying in a hotel with mold and a bedbug infestation:
@NWSL there’s no other way to address continuing problems. Hotels have been unacceptable. For ex. :Bed bugs/mold @ Adams Mark Hotel in KC
Also in 2015, the women’s World Cup was played on artificial turf pitches, while the men played on natural grass. “We took it very personally, because it was an insult,” Morgan told Britain’s The Guardian newspaper. “They had never done that for the men—and they never would. The men wouldn’t stand for it.”
Last July, the Seattle Reign and the Western New York Flash met on a field with a width 12 yards narrower than the standard. Afterward, superstar goalkeeper Hope Solo blasted the NWSL for, among other things, unsanitary locker rooms and inadequate security.
Morgan, shown in action during a Pride game, has authored a series of books aimed at middle school girls (ROBERTO GONZALEZ)
The NWSL, whose teams include the Orlando Pride, is funded by the U.S. Soccer Federation and is the third attempt to establish a professional women’s league. Salaries start at about $1,000 a month, which means that those players not on the women’s national team have to work a second job. Morgan doesn’t need a second job but because of the uncertainties swirling over NWSL labor negotiations, and seeing a chance to further her career, she opted to sign a six-month contract with France’s prestigious Olympique Lyonnais football club while staying at the forefront of contract talks. That means she’ll miss the early part of the Pride’s 2017 season but says she remains committed to both Orlando and the team.
“I could easily take a break after playing in France, but I’m confident we’ll get a contract done and I’ll be back in June playing for the Pride,” she says. “I shouldn’t miss more than a quarter of the Pride’s season. I’ll be back. It’s important to me to grow the brand that is the NWSL and the Orlando Pride, and also make Orlando one of the bigger soccer cities in the world.”
Already, Morgan has assumed an ambassador’s role. She appeared with Michelle Obama on the White House South Lawn six years ago, promoting the former First Lady’s Let’s Move! program that encouraged a healthier lifestyle for children. She has aligned herself with UNICEF and other children-centric initiatives. With the assistance of a ghostwriter, she authored a series of books titled The Kicks, aimed at middle-school girls.
“When I was younger, there weren’t many sports books for girls specifically,” she notes. “It was either for girls and boys, or mostly men athletes writing books and memoirs. When someone came to me with the idea for The Kicks series, I thought it was perfect. I felt like it was the best idea I’ve been approached with in my entire career.” Enormously popular, the book series was picked up by Amazon and turned into an original video series available on Amazon Prime.
All of this arrives with the singular goal of empowering little girls like Payton Pitman.
It wasn’t too long ago when Alex Morgan was a little girl herself. She grew up in Diamond Bar, a hamlet in California’s rolling hills about 30 miles east of Los Angeles. Alex was the youngest of three daughters, and early on her parents, Mike and Pam Morgan, noticed something different about her. She was the girl who grew tired of losing to her siblings at Monopoly, so she would sit for hours, days on end, to learn the game on her own so she would get good enough to win. Her father has described her competitive fire as something that could rise to the level of “scary.”
Mike Morgan, who owns a masonry business, likes sports, particularly baseball, and so he enrolled his daughters in all the various youth activities available, coaching them, his bent leaning more toward softball. Little Alex competed in them all—soccer, softball, volleyball and track and field; but number one was soccer. One day, when she was about nine, she told her father she was done with the other sports and just wanted to stick with soccer. He shouldn’t have been surprised. When Alex was eight, the same age as Payton Pitman was when she met her idol with such unabashed emotion, Morgan wrote a note to her mother. Emblazoned with hearts, one of which showed an arrow through it, she scribbled:
My name is Alex and I’m going to be a professional athlete for soccer!’’
It was signed “Ali Cat,’’ her nickname growing up.
Usually, as most families can attest to, the youngest child is spoiled; gets away with more. Not Alex Morgan.
“My parents were more strict with me,” she says. “I think the reason why is that they saw my potential and the passion I had for soccer at such a young age. And I do think, realistically, it’s very expensive to play youth sports, to play club soccer. They were putting a lot of money and time into it, and they wanted it to be used well.’’
Part of the family’s lore is how Mike Morgan established a meritorious point system, with each point counting as a dollar to be used toward the purchase of each of his girls’ first car. Points/dollars were awarded for A grades in school, making the National Honor Society, earning a spot on varsity sports teams and even—perhaps to his later chagrin—scoring goals in soccer. The eldest daughter, Jennifer, earned enough to get a sensible Mercury sedan. When her time arrived, the middle child, Jeri, chose a Chevy truck. And the little girl they used to call Ali Cat? She accumulated enough points/dollars to cash them in for a new, silver Lexus IS 350.
Young Alex’s soccer prowess wasn’t always an upward arc, however. The natural progression for those demonstrating preternatural ability is to move from youth soccer to club soccer, which is generally viewed as a competitive preparatory platform for serious players pursuing a college scholarship, or perhaps even a professional career. But when Morgan made the jump, it didn’t go well. She didn’t make the first club team she tried out for. She adjusted quickly, made the second, and mashed the gas pedal on her soccer career. Things first accelerated for her when she was 10 and then again when she was 13. Diamond Bar is less than 30 miles from Pasadena in Southern California, but for a 10-year-old Alex Morgan it seemed so much closer. She watched on TV as the U.S. Women’s National Team won the 1999 World Cup at the nearby Rose Bowl, igniting her imagination.
“There wasn’t much soccer on TV when I was younger, especially women’s soccer,” Morgan says. “I didn’t have soccer idols to look up to. But after that World Cup in 1999, I started paying attention more.”
The names on that women’s team became part of her lexicon—Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Michelle Akers, Kristine Lilly.
Especially Kristine Lilly.
A few years after that historic World Cup championship, when she was 13, Morgan was playing in a tournament in Carson, Calif., when Kristine Lilly unexpectedly appeared to speak to the girls. At first, Morgan experienced shock, and then awe.
“I knew she was on the National Team, so I knew she must be one of the best athletes in the world,” Morgan says. “I couldn’t believe she was actually there in front of me. I was in awe of her. Just seeing her in person and seeing that she was real inspired me. I started following her after that. It grew that passion in me to play soccer, and wanting to eventually make the National Team. I wanted to follow in her footsteps, not just with the goal of one day making the National Team, but one day inspiring young girls like she inspires me.”
Shortly afterward, Morgan adopted Lilly’s number 13 as her own. It’s a number she not only still wears, but also is spelled in script above a branch with leaves, tattooed above Morgan’s left hip. Morgan is left-footed.
While it was midfielder Lilly who ignited an inspirational spark, the progression of the face of U.S. Women’s Soccer has emerged from the forward position, the scoring position—the torch passing from Mia Hamm to Abby Wambach to Morgan. She has carried the torch well, helping her women’s team win both a 2015 World Cup and a gold medal in the 2012 Olympics. None of this, of course, would be possible if Morgan weren’t so good—a player with uncanny speed and an explosive and creative scorer who is economic with her footwork. Wambach, the University of Florida’s all-time leading scorer, who also led the Gators to a national title in 1998, remembers Morgan capturing her attention when she emerged on the national soccer scene seven years ago.
“She was new, young and exciting,” Wambach says. “She played as a rookie with this reckless abandon. She came in with a chip on her shoulder, but in a positive way. You could see right away that she had all the tools—strong, fast, all those extra intangibles and just a pure love of the game. She had the kind of natural talent you don’t want to over-coach. She’d do things in practice you’d never seen before, doing things from these awkward angles that made you stop and notice. You sensed something different about her, something special.”
That something special, Wambach adds, makes Morgan the perfect face for the sport. While acknowledging that much of what attracts people to women’s sports depends—perhaps too much—on the attractiveness of the athletes themselves, Wambach quickly adds that Morgan has the athleticism to back it up. Unlike, say, a Danica Patrick, who has made a seven-figure living on her looks and average racecar driving skills—Patrick has yet to win either an Indy or NASCAR race—Morgan is often advertised as the best women’s player in the world. And for good reason. She likely is, as evidenced by the fact that she’s scored 73 goals in 120 games for the USA. It’s why Wambach compares her favorably to David Beckham, the former world-class men’s player who parlayed his playing career into millions as an endorser, thanks to his crossover sex appeal.
Morgan with some soccer clinic admirers. “She motivates me to never give up,’’ one said (NATHAN DOBBINS).
But once again, there is a double-standard, a disparity between how male athletes are viewed compared to their female counterparts. Male soccer players like Beckham or Cristiano Ronaldo, who regularly appears in underwear ads, can sell their sex appeal, and do so to celebration rather than recrimination. But when Morgan appeared in Sports Illustrated’s 2015 swimsuit issue, sporting a body-painted bikini, she got pushback, particularly on social media (she has 2.8 million Twitter followers). It somewhat startled her, and it’s been part of the learning curve that goes with the scrutiny trailing her wherever she goes. “There are things I wish weren’t the case, with negative backlash on social media or whatever it might be with being in the public eye,” she says, before adding with a sigh: “There are always going to be those people…you know, anyone and everyone who can hide behind their computer.”
That doesn’t mean she blithely barged into doing Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue, totally naïve to what the perception might be.
“The fact that it was body paint…that was something I’d never done before,” she says. “My mom and dad were going to see that, along with all of my parents’ friends and all of my friends. So, for me, it wasn’t about everyone else and the fans. It was about if I feel comfortable and confident in putting this out there with the people I love. I consulted not only my husband, but my mom and dad. They were supportive of it, and when they were supportive of it, I moved forward with it.”
For his part, Geoff Palmer doesn’t see anything unduly disconcerting. Palmer drove his 14-year-old daughter, Caroline, to Orlando from Charlotte, N.C., for the soccer clinic Morgan headlined last October at XL Soccer World. He said he sprang the trip on his daughter as a birthday gift, and that her reaction was the same as Payton Pitman’s: tears.
Palmer says it wasn’t so much what he believed his daughter could learn as a soccer player by attending an Alex Morgan clinic; it was more of what Caroline could learn from her as a role model. Like Morgan’s father, Mike, Palmer has immersed himself in youth soccer, coaching Caroline’s teams. One of the personal maxims he preaches to the girls he coaches is: “If there are more pictures on your phone of you rather than what you’re doing and accomplishing, then that’s a problem.” He has examined Morgan’s Instagram account and marvels that it feeds into what he believes.
“I was just looking at it the other day, and there’s a picture of Alex taking her best friend out before her friend’s wedding,” he says. “Most of her pictures are like that. As a father, I love that my daughter looks up to Alex Morgan instead of other female celebrities. I tell my daughter and the girls I coach all the time that the people who are the loudest on the Internet aren’t necessarily the best people to look at.”
Of course, Morgan does have a loud Internet following. In addition to her 2.8 million Twitter followers—her handle is @alexmorgan13—and 4.8 million Instagram followers—i.e. alexmorgan13—a 2016 Adweek article, citing the social media data-tracking website ListenFirstMedia.com, said this: “Morgan is the queen of Facebook. She has all three of the top performing posts on the channel.” No other female soccer player ranks higher in Twitter, Instagram and Facebook followers.
When Caroline Palmer met Morgan at the XL Soccer World clinic, it was as if she already knew Morgan—but didn’t. “It felt unreal, like an out-of-body experience,” Caroline says. The 14-year-old espouses Morgan’s mantra—be confident, be strong, don’t ever quit, believe that you can set any goal you can dream of and achieve it. “She’s such a great person to look up to,” says Caroline, who wears Morgan’s number 13 on her club team. “She motivates me to never give up, whether it’s in sports or in life.”
It might seem odd, then, to acknowledge that the main reason the face of U.S. Women’s Soccer has now become the most prominent face in the pantheon of Central Florida sports celebrities is because Morgan ceded to her husband’s soccer career. Morgan and Carrasco had tired of living in separate cities. Before playing last season together in Orlando—Carrasco for the Lions and Morgan for the Pride—the two were constantly apart, which strained their relationship and led to a brief breakup when they were dating several years ago. In 2011-15, when Carrasco played professionally in Seattle, Houston and Kansas City, Morgan was playing professionally primarily in western New York, Portland and briefly in Seattle. After marrying on New Year’s Eve in 2014, their goal was to play in the same city. When Carrasco signed with the Lions, a deal was engineered to bring Morgan to the Pride.
“Our first few years as professionals, we obviously didn’t love being away from each other, but we wanted to see where soccer would individually take us,” Morgan says. “At the beginning, for Servando, that was Seattle and for me that was Portland, so we were really close to each other initially. Eventually, he went further and further away from me. I guess he doesn’t like me.”
“I guess we were waiting for the right time in terms of our career and a smart decision by us both. With him getting traded here and me getting to know the ownership, it seemed like the right time because it seemed like they had a big vision for the club itself—for both the men’s side and the women’s side. I felt like it was perfect timing and that this was a great company I would be coming into. We were like, if everything lines up perfectly, then let’s go for it. And I felt like this was exactly what we had been looking for.”
She says being in France for six months won’t be easy for the two of them, but it is only temporary. “I’m committed to Orlando,” she says. “I want the fans to know that.”
Being together in the same city can create some interesting dynamics for a couple who compete in the same sport professionally. Carrasco notes that Morgan’s work ethic, as well as her competitive nature, knows no off switch. The couple had only a two-day honeymoon after their wedding in Santa Barbara, Calif. They spent it in Big Sur. Carrasco looked forward to 48 hours of relaxing with his new bride before both departed for their soccer careers. Morgan had other ideas.
“That first morning,” he says, “I woke up at 7 a.m., and Alex had already gone running, did a hard workout, and now she was doing squats and pushups in our room. I looked at her and thought, ‘Well, I better get my ass out of bed.’ She works so damn hard. It’s not so much that she has skills and ability, it’s her commitment. She has such a desire to be the best. It’s that desire that sets her apart.”
When they’re together, whatever they’re doing seems to naturally transition into a competition.
“It can be absurd at times,” Carrasco says. “Card games like gin rummy can turn into a fight. We’ll go for a sunset paddle board and then all of a sudden it becomes a race back to the shore, with one of us knocking the other one off their board if they’re in the lead. Who’s quicker? Who’s better? I mean, it’s always fun, but afterward there can be that awkward silence for two or three hours.”
To be sure, the couple has happily plunged into the Central Florida lifestyle. In their first few months here, they played a lot of local golf, mostly at Dubsdread Golf Course. They’ve frequented Wekiva Springs for hiking and floated down Kelly Park Rock Springs Run. They’ve taken her young nieces to Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom. They like it here, and Morgan embraces the idea of being a face—perhaps even the face —of sport celebrities in a city teeming with them. “I want to be a part of the community,” she says, “especially because Florida has such a great youth soccer community.”
She notes that the Orlando City Lions and the Orlando Pride, already blessed with fantastic support, are also the only professional soccer teams in the state. She thus sees their impact, as well as their draw, as limitless.
“We have great support, but it can be so much bigger,” she says. “With the amount of colleges in Florida, which have such great athletic programs, we can do more with the youth community and with local colleges like UCF and Rollins College. I’ve trained with UCF, and I know the Rollins College women’s head coach. I definitely want to continue to do things like clinics, but also get involved with local colleges.”
For the time being, Morgan and Carrasco are renters in Altamonte Springs. To help them settle in, they adopted a dog—a lovable mixture of Labrador, pit bull and Mastiff—from the South Lake Animal League (which inspired several of their teammates to do the same) and named the pooch Blue.
“We’re enjoying the super-nice Florida lifestyle,” says Carrasco. “This genuinely feels like home. This club, this city, it’s fantastic. To get to share this with my wife …we hope to be here for the long run. We want to leave a footprint.”
To be sure, the bigger footprint is going to come from his international superstar wife, which is something Carrasco is proud of.
“From the day I met her in college, she’s always gone above and beyond to be an ambassador for the sport,” he says. “She wants to help build the sport. I think it’s so cool that little girls look up to her as a role model. They see in her what’s possible.”
Alex Morgan certainly sees it, too.
She sees young girls like Payton Pitman and at times it’s as if she’s looking in a mirror. At the Altamonte Springs Publix, it was Payton who was the last in line, simply looking for a photograph and an autograph. But in Alex Morgan’s worldview, the line of little girls is much longer, and she sees herself offering so much more.