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Alex Morgan's journey back to the top of her game

In 2017, Alex Morgan led the U.S. women's national team with seven goals, competed overseas for Lyon and was named CONCACAF female player of the year. Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Morgan steadied the ball with a cushioning first touch of her left foot, and in one motion drove her right foot through the last kick of consequence for the U.S. women's national team in 2017.

The decisive goal in a November win against Canada, the ball traveled little more than 6 yards toward the back of the net. But in Morgan's case, the buildup spanned from the Pacific Ocean to the far side of its Atlantic counterpart.

The national team set out an audacious schedule this year in an attempt to figure out its future ahead of the 2019 World Cup and 2020 Olympics -- playing eight teams that were ranked behind the United States in FIFA's top 10 at the close of the year -- and one of its most identifiable veterans took on an itinerary no less bold. While questions remain as to exactly what the team learned about itself by taking on the world, Morgan's answer was as emphatic as that goal against Canada.

Rather than an intermission, 2017 lifted the curtain on her second act.

"Alex is hungry to prove herself," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said after one of a string of impressive fall performances. "I mean this in the nicest way, she's a predator. She's trying to get on the end of balls, she's battling for balls, working hard to regain -- she generates a lot of our attack from her defensive pressure. I don't know what I would attribute it to, but I'm just incredibly proud that she's got to that point, in terms of realizing that [she can] just refocus on what she needs to do for her to be successful."

Morgan scored a team-best seven goals this year for the U.S. women, despite playing fewer minutes than 10 teammates. Of course, she also tied for the team lead in goals a year ago, but this felt different. Between Olympic disappointment in Rio and a summer of losses with the expansion Orlando Pride in the National Women's Soccer League -- all of that on the heels of the emotional high that was a World Cup title the previous year -- 2016 was something less than satisfying.

It would be overly dramatic to suggest the 2016 CONCACAF female player of the year, an award she this week won for the second year in a row, was in some sort of midcareer crisis. Yet as the calendar turned to 2017, a year in which she turned 28, it wasn't irresponsible to wonder whether Ellis' youth movement with the national team would incorporate her or begin to lay the groundwork to replace her.

"I wanted to feel successful both individually and with the teams I was playing with," Morgan said. "So I did have kind of a bigger outlook on what I wanted to achieve this year."

It was therefore telling that after Morgan began 2016 in San Diego, returning to her Southern California roots for her 100th appearance for the United States, she opened 2017 in Guingamp, France. There she set up two goals for Lyon in her debut for that women's soccer giant. And rather than a celebration of career milestones accumulating in her wake, what awaited was a rugged challenge far from home and beyond her comfort zone.

Things are traditionally quiet on the international level for the United States in the year after the Olympics. Without a major tournament or qualifying events, U.S. players had fewer commitments to international duty, conditions that made it ideal for an outflow of players from the United States to Europe. And the rise of well-financed European clubs seeking to win or reach the Champions League created demand for that supply of talent.

Heather O'Reilly, recently retired from the national team, pursued a soccer dream with Arsenal. Crystal Dunn seized an opportunity to prove herself in her preferred position at Chelsea. Always able to find the David in any Goliath, Carli Lloyd signed at Manchester City, where she could live in the same building as Pep Guardiola and train at the same facility as Kevin De Bruyne but take on the establishment with a women's team still new to the top of the English and European game.

But the first announcement came before the calendar even turned to 2017 when Morgan signed with Lyon. She would spend much of the first half of the year in France -- competing for titles in the French league, domestic cup competition and Champions League -- then return to the NWSL.

The moves to Europe had financial benefits in each case. Although unconfirmed, French media outlet SFR Sport reported Morgan would make approximately $30,000 a month for her short stay in Lyon. That is still less than a tenth of what a male superstar like Cristiano Ronaldo makes in just a week, but it is in the upper stratosphere of salaries in the women's game. Morgan was added to a payroll that already included stars such as Ada Hegerberg, the Norwegian named Europe's best player in 2016, and Dzsenifer Marozsan, rising star and captain of Germany's national team.

"She's literally one of the best players in the world, an absolutely fantastic player," Lyon sporting director Marino Faccioli said of Morgan through an interpreter this spring. "That was our primary reason. Second reason is we wanted to open up to the U.S. market. In order to open up to the U.S. market, you need to attract the best players from the U.S. here."

The gilded roster was the work of Jean-Michel Aulas, the very visible owner of the Lyon men's and women's teams who drew a bigger scrum of television cameras and microphones than any of the players when he strolled into the interview area after the Champions League home game with Manchester City. He is also responsible for the large new stadium outside Lyon that will host the opening game and final of the 2019 Women's World Cup.

Lyon plays its biggest games in that gleaming stadium, where the women's team drew more than 20,000 fans for the semifinal leg against Manchester City, 14,000 for a quarterfinal leg against Wolfsburg and close to 10,000 for league matches against rival Paris Saint-Germain. Still, the women play games of less consequence next door in the training stadium that seats fewer than 2,000 people -- smaller by far than any NWSL venue. So while Manchester City director of women's football Gavin Makel, whose team plays to similarly small crowds, defended expenditures on Lloyd and other premier players as an investment in an unsaturated market, Lyon is less guarded. Aulas wanted the best team, Faccioli said, so he went and got it.

"What I thought about Europe was that the compensation piece was just so far ahead of the NWSL, and what I found was that's not necessarily true," Morgan said, acknowledging that Lyon is one of a handful of teams in which the salaries are "significantly" higher than those in the NWSL.

"I definitely think [the NWSL] can increase the minimum salary," Morgan continued. "But with the training facilities, at least that I've seen in Portland and Orlando -- I cannot speak for the other teams -- but it's a pretty professional standard, along with the coaching staff and housing that's available to the non-national-team players. ... I don't think the entirety of the NWSL is very different than in Europe."

But what Lyon had to offer was precisely what Morgan craved.

After the second leg of the Champions League semifinal against Lloyd and Manchester City, Morgan walked through the interview area with her eyes focused on her phone. Married to Orlando City's Servando Carrasco, she was livestreaming his MLS game then underway in Florida. With Aulas holding court nearby and many of the team's French players speaking to the media, Morgan appeared almost surprised when sought out for an interview. She was a name in France -- indeed it was her image on the team's giant video board before the game as part of a promotional message for the Champions League -- but language and transience made her all but invisible off the field. Lyon had plenty of other stars to do the talking.

She drove each day to the suburban stadium and training grounds. She played soccer. She drove back to her living quarters in the more bustling city center. And for the first time since before she fully burst onto the scene for the United States in the 2011 World Cup, that was it.

"When I'm back in the U.S., I'm pulled in a lot of different directions a lot of times, both on and off the field -- mostly off the field," Morgan said. "Going over there, I wanted to just focus purely on the football aspect of things. ... At times I was just so bored at home after training, I had to occupy my time with things and get myself out of my apartment or else I'd just end up relaxing all day, doing nothing and then at night being so bored and not being able to sleep because I was literally laying around all day."

The tradeoff came in those hours on the field. As deep a pool of talent as there is in the United States, and as good a competitive environment as the national team provides, Lyon might have employed the greatest assemblage of talent on one field in all of women's soccer. The bulk of the French national team was complemented by talent from around the globe. The allure of the Champions League helped draw her to Lyon, but the best competition came in practice.

The manager at one stage summoned Morgan, Hegerberg and Eugenie Le Sommer and told three of quite possibly the top five or six forwards in the world that only two of them would start. Training would settle the lineup. The resulting competition instead convinced him otherwise.

"The training environment was extremely competitive," Morgan said. "We ended up actually playing a three front because I think all three of us forced his hand in playing a three-front. It wasn't only with our position, it was with other positions, as well. There were players on the bench that would have never been on the bench on any other team in the world.

"I definitely found myself learning a lot in training, as much or more as in games."

Morgan's time in Lyon might seem like a continuation of a familiar narrative, her success overseas tempered by a hamstring injury. In addition to Lyon winning the league and beating PSG for the Coupe de France, Morgan became the first American to win the Champions League in its current incarnation -- but she left the final before halftime because of the injury. From the ankle injuries that plagued her in 2014 and eventually forced her out of World Cup qualifying to the knee injury that imperiled availability for the World Cup, the limits of human physiology have proved difficult to overcome. That she returned to the Pride in June as damaged goods, unable to take the field for the first time in a game until July 1, offered the opportunity to question the wisdom of stretching that body over two seasons and two continents.

Then came the goals. She scored her first in her third appearance for the Pride. She scored nine in her final 11 regular-season appearances, teaming with Brazilian star Marta to lift the Pride from near the bottom of the table in the franchise's first year in 2016 to the playoffs. Then Morgan scored all seven of her goals for the United States in its final seven games.

When the body healed, the spirit was willing. As were the skills.

It wasn't just goals, even if she will always be measured by those. Prone to criticism over the years that her game lacked nuance or technical savvy, that she was best using her athleticism to beat defenders for pace, Morgan played the predator role that Ellis described with gusto. But she also demonstrated a versatility to play in wide spaces instead of the familiar No. 9 role of a center forward.

"I think it opened a lot of people's eyes to the idea that 'Nine isn't just what she can play,'" Morgan said "I wasn't sure if I would enjoy the position, but I actually ended up enjoying it a lot more than I thought. With the national team, in the past, we've played a lot with the two front. Moving to more of a 4-3-3, which [Ellis] has stated that she wants to look at moving forward, I think that I definitely appreciate the time I spent in France."

As a soccer act, the year played out as well as Morgan could have hoped, minus Orlando's 4-1 loss to Portland in the NWSL semifinals. Indeed, in a distinct departure from her norm, namely a pristine public image, the year's greatest moment of tension -- and for once, embarrassment -- came off the field. Morgan was among a group ejected from Disney's Epcot in October, park officials describing some members of the group as "verbally aggressive." She apologized for her role, although she also subsequently suggested that body cam video later released by local police proved she was defending friends and not "out of control or highly aggressive," as the initial police report indicated.

That everything Morgan does comes under scrutiny is self-evident. Her profile is as prominent as that of any athlete in women's team sports, a reality that has greatly benefited her portfolio if also coming at the cost of anonymity. But as much as is possible in her world, she made 2017 about soccer. And wedged on the national team between a core of veterans in their 30s, captains Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn among them, and a generation scattered throughout their early 20s, Morgan is more fascinating than ever for soccer. She has been at this long enough to score 80 international goals and accumulate that long list of injuries. She is young enough to make us wonder what might still be on the horizon.

"What I keep thinking about is continuing to want to improve, thinking that I'm not at my peak," Morgan said. "I feel like I've been on the national team for quite a few years now, way more than most players -- which is surprising because I felt like I was one of the younger players up until two years ago. But I think just wanting to improve, wanting to be on the [FIFA FIFPro World XI], wanting to be in the top three for FIFA player of the year, that's what continues to motivate me."

That her year ended in Tanzania as part of a joint envoy program between U.S. Soccer and the U.S. State Department to promote the sport, is a fitting coda.

It was a year when U.S. Soccer took on the world in an effort to revitalize itself.

It was a year when Morgan went out into the world to show how much a part of it she remains.