PORTLAND — When Thorns coach Mark Parsons phoned Meg Morris last month about possibly coming to Portland, she offered to pay for her own plane ticket and hotel room.
She just wanted the chance.
While Parsons made no guarantees, it was pretty clear from the start that the midfielder was going to fit right in with the Thorns.
“She was willing to do what it took to get a chance,” Parsons said. “The first session, the coaches all said, ‘Who the heck is this girl? This is what we need to add to our roster.”‘
The 24-year-old Morris was signed about a week later. While the National Women’s Soccer League has been built with stars from the U.S. and Canadian national teams, like Carli Lloyd and Christine Sinclair, Morris’ story is not so unusual among many of the other players who are just trying to make a pro career out of the game they love.
That may explain Morris’ ecstatic reaction Saturday night when she came in as a reserve against the Washington Spirit and scored. The players mobbed Morris and the Thorns bench spilled out to join in the celebration. Even the crowd roared.
“It was an unreal feeling, especially for me, knowing what I’ve gone through in the NWSL to get here,” Morris said. “I was just so excited. I probably shouldn’t have reacted like I did because we were up 3-1, but it was such a great moment for me personally that I just lost it.”
Morris and others like her in the league could see their roles expand in the coming months as players who are on Olympics-bound national teams get called up for training camps and exhibition games.
Tobin Heath, Megan Klingenberg, Lindsey Horan, Emily Sonnett, Allie Long and goalkeeper Adrianna Franch are expected to leave the Thorns on Friday to prepare for a pair of U.S. exhibition matches against Japan early next month. They’ll miss Sunday’s rivalry match against the Seattle Reign.
While members of the U.S. national team, who are allocated across the NWSL, are calling for pay equal to that of their male national team counterparts, Morris is one of many players in the women’s pro league who make ends meet while pursuing a dream.
Morris coaches on the side, because eventually that’s what she’d like to do. Others have part-time jobs. Some live with host families.
“I think I’m just like addicted to it. I don’t think I could ever see myself not playing soccer, not being involved, in anything else,” Morris said. “I think I’m going to be around the game for the rest of my life.”
Salaries for the U.S. and Canadian national team players are paid by their federations. Other high-profile players can also make a comfortable living. But for the rest, NWSL salaries range from $7,200 to a maximum of $39,700 a year.
Some players are forced to face financial reality, like defender Nikki Marshall, who left the Thorns before the start of last season to take a full-time job with a tech company. Midfielder Amy Barczuk retired at age 25 from the Boston Breakers and is now pursuing a master’s degree.
At just 5-foot-2, Morris’ stature belies her strength. She was a four-year starter at North Carolina, and was part of the Tar Heels team that beat BYU for the NCAA championship in 2012, her junior year.
A New Jersey native, Morris signed with the NWSL’s Sky Blue as a discovery player in 2014. She appeared in 12 games, making five starts, before she was released last year.
But she had caught the eye of Parsons, who is in his first season as the Thorns coach. He reached out to her in April and she signed with the team before the end of the month. Saturday night’s goal was her first in the NWSL.
“To see Meg Morris come on and really explode onto the scene like that was cool,” Parsons said. “We’ve done a good job in bringing her back down from the sky and the clouds and keeping her grounded this week, and we’re excited for her to get some good time in on Sunday.”
The Thorns are currently the only undefeated team in the NWSL, which is now in its pivotal fourth season. No other women’s professional league has lasted this long, and the league depends on players like Morris, who are willing to put in the work and fill roles, for its success.
Morris plans to take advantage of it. And it helps she’s in soccer-crazy Portland, which easily has the best attendance in the league.
“I think it’s pretty sick playing in front of 15,000 people,” she said. “It’s ridiculous. The atmosphere playing in front of that is unreal. That’s why we all play the game.”