Rivalry Week

Lewis Morgan relishes return to Hudson River Derby: "It's just special"


Ask most athletes about the worst part of a serious injury, and they’ll say it’s not the moment of impact so much as the long, lonely months of recovery that follow. Not being able to help the team, trading practices for rehab sessions, missing the thrill of competition – all identity losses that make the mental road to recovery as daunting as the physical.

Lewis Morgan, the New York Red Bulls' Scottish winger-turned-striker, experienced all that and more in 2023. What first seemed like an innocuous hip injury developed into a deep tear of the psoas muscle that runs from the lower back through the pelvis and into the upper thigh. After fits and starts trying to get healthy with rest and rehab alone, he made the difficult decision to undergo surgery risky enough that returning to play wasn’t guaranteed.

“I think normally it's like 95 percent [chance of ever playing again], but my hip was pretty compromised. So we put that around 80 percent to 85 percent,” Morgan told MLSsoccer.com of his recovery prospects.

Even if Morgan did return to play, RBNY senior physical therapist Zach Cogen revealed in a mini-doc about the recovery process that the likelihood of a “return to performance” was much worse, possibly as low as 25 percent.

Back to form

Thirteen games into the 2024 campaign, Morgan sits fifth in the Golden Boot presented by Audi race with nine goals and three assists – his most prolific scoring rate in MLS since Inter Miami CF acquired him from Celtic FC in January 2020.

Needless to say, he’s returned to performance and then some.

“Sometimes fear can be a big driver of performance and a big motivator,” said Morgan. “… I think that's what made me push so hard in the recovery process.”

When the Scot’s teammates were going home for the holidays or escaping the Mid-Atlantic winter for tropical vacations after their Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs exit to FC Cincinnati, he stayed close to the facility, working with Cogen nearly every day to beat the odds.

“Every single morning, me and Zach or a physio were in here, sometimes 6 am, 6:30 am,” said Morgan. “We were in here, the sun hadn't risen, especially through the winter. Then going into the whole offseason, Monday through Friday, I would be in. And then we'd be given the weekends off, and more often than not, I'd come in on the Saturday and the Sunday myself and do some stuff.”

Road back

Beyond the fear of having his soccer career cut short, Morgan drew inspiration from his upbringing in Scotland, where he saw hard work everyday.

“I think my dad is probably one of the people that I would say is a harder worker than me. And I always try and make sure that I'm the hardest worker in the room, and I probably took that from seeing how hard he worked when I was growing up and everything that he sacrificed,” said RBNY’s No. 9. “That's something that I obviously carried into the recovery process.”

It didn’t hurt that working alongside him every step of the journey was a kindred spirit in Cogen, the type of locker-room figure who personifies all the Red Bulls preach – selflessness, dedication and drive.

“I owe the whole recovery process to him,” Morgan said of the team’s physical therapist. “ ... If I told him I wanted to come in at 3 am, he would have been here. Anything you asked of him, he would do it. He went completely above and beyond. You can tell that, for him, this wasn't just an injury that he was rehabbing again. He really takes, not things personal, but there's a connection with the player, and he builds that.”

Good times roll

Morgan’s hot scoring streak has propelled New York to third place in the Eastern Conference. Alongside new Designated Player Emil Forsberg and a breakout campaign from fellow striker Dante Vanzeir, RBNY have revitalized their attack, scoring 24 goals in 13 games, fourth-most in MLS. It’s a major rebound from 2023, when their attack repeatedly fell flat.

But even with 2023’s underwhelming output in attack, the Red Bulls qualified for their 14th straight playoffs, the longest-ever streak in MLS and the longest active streak in American pro sports. Yet simply qualifying for this year’s postseason won’t satisfy Morgan, the club or their fans – especially since MLS Cup remains elusive for RBNY.

“I mean, when it's all said and done, people look at the trophy case and see what you've got in there,” said Morgan. “I've been fortunate enough, but also not through chance – I've been at clubs that have won and had the proud history of winning. Even when I was at St. Mirren, we managed to play in cup finals and we won promotion there, we won the league. And in my time at Sunderland, we played in cup finals. So I feel like I've got experience of doing that, and it's something that I want to do here, as well as something that I know we're capable of.

“Quite a lot of the time, the outside noise is ‘Are Red Bulls going to make the playoffs again?’ But for us, that's not the goal. We need to make sure we're getting to the playoffs and then we're taking the next step.”

New York: Red or Blue?

Playoffs may still be months away for RBNY and their new head coach, Sandro Schwarz, but matches of consequence are just around the corner. This Saturday, they travel from Harrison to Queens for a Rivalry Week presented by Continental Tire showdown with New York City FC at Citi Field (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

Historically, the Red Bulls have dominated the Hudson River Derby with a 15W-8L-4D record across all competitions, but each new edition presents Morgan and Co. with another chance to turn the Tri-State area red.

“I want to win every single game, every game in training I want to win. But there's no doubt in my mind that there's always a special feeling around the derby games, especially when you know you can send half of the area home happy and have the bragging rights,” said Morgan.

“That's something that growing up in Scotland; obviously I had the experience of always wanting to make sure my team won when Rangers played Celtic. So I know what it feels like to be a fan, and I try and take that, and as a player in these games, know that it's a little bit bigger than the other ones.”

Less than six months after dark, cold commutes to rehab at the Red Bulls’ facility with no soccer future promised, Morgan is soaking up moments big and small: “It was impossible for me to put on socks for almost a year.”

Morgan added: "I think it's just special because I've found, not that I'd fallen out of love with football at all, but I think I maybe was taking it for granted and taking my health for granted over the course of my time. And now I realize that you can very easily miss a year of football, which is what I've done.

“I feel like I've gotten that real good attitude back for the game, and I enjoy every single day.”