Orlando Pride hopes Alex Morgan will return from Tottenham for NWSL start

When the Orlando Pride finally take the field this weekend for the team's first game in nearly a year, they will do so without star forward and new Tottenham signing Alex Morgan. But that isn't an absence that Orlando coach Marc Skinner expects to linger into 2021.

Skinner said Wednesday that he anticipates Morgan will return from her contract in England in time to join the Pride next spring for preseason ahead of the 2021 NWSL season.

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"It's almost a way for us to see and experiment with players we don't know so much about," Skinner said of playing the fall without Morgan. "And then we'll welcome Alex back into preseason next season, with the aim of playing for us in the season after.

"We're happy with the decision -- we'd love to have Alex in our team, of course. Anyone would. But we're happy that it will give Orlando a benefit going forwards."

Tottenham announced Saturday that they had signed Morgan for the 2020-21 season without specifying terms of the contract. Multiple sources told ESPN that it will be her decision whether to extend her stay in London through the second half of the FA WSL season that runs through early May.

While the NWSL has not announced its 2021 calendar yet, preseason for its teams will likely begin in early March.

Facing a year in which they have been able to offer their players few games stateside, NWSL teams have loaned dozens of players to teams abroad. The Pride, who were unable to play in the summer's NWSL Challenge Cup because of contact tracing protocols related to positive coronavirus tests, have more than a dozen players overseas, including Alanna Kennedy and Shelina Zadorsky on loan at Tottenham.

"The [loan agreement] is they come back ready to go for preseason, and that will be no different for Alex," Skinner said. "It might even be sooner than that. With Alex, it's a focus point on when we can get in, when's best, and we'll assess this all in the offseason. But yeah, I fully expect Alex to be part of Orlando and going forwards to be part of what we're doing at the club."

The difference in Morgan's case relative to her Orlando teammates is that she is not on loan and the NWSL team has no direct control over the terms of her agreement with Tottenham. Morgan's compensation for playing in the NWSL comes from U.S. Soccer, not Orlando. As with Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis at Manchester City and Tobin Heath and Christen Press at Manchester United, Morgan was free to negotiate her own terms with Spurs.

Still, Skinner sounded confident that Morgan, who has played just six games for the Pride since the end of 2018 due to a combination of World Cup participation, injuries, the birth of her daughter and the ongoing pandemic, remained part of the club's future.

The Silver Boot winner after scoring six goals for the United States in the 2019 Women's World Cup, Morgan scored her most recent NWSL goal for Orlando on Aug. 25, 2018.

"It was very much a last-minute move, an inquiry from Tottenham, anyway," Skinner said. "I think they'd had other targets and it came about in the last day before their transfer window. It just made more sense. I had a conversation with Alex and once we had that conversation, it was very clear that it was the right direction for her to get more games in. And that can only benefit us."

After missing the Challenge Cup, Orlando opens its four-game fall series schedule at North Carolina on Saturday with a roster that still features well-known stars like Ashlyn Harris, Ali Krieger, Sydney Leroux and Marta.

"The one thing that COVID experience has given us is the chance to test that resilience," Skinner said. "Making no bones about it, these four games are what the players deserve. For their commitment through a very very difficult year, it's their reward for all of the hard work they've put in."