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MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - For years it was assumed that if professional women's club soccer was to truly take off it would be the United States that would provide the home for an elite competition.
The U.S national team have won the World Cup three times and are four-times Olympic gold medallists. The country has produced some of the women's game's biggest and most marketable names.
On Saturday, however, two of those big names of American women's soccer, 2015 World Cup winners Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan, were in action in the north-west of England at Manchester City's Academy Stadium.
Lloyd, the current World Player of the Year, lined up in the sky blue of her Manchester club while Morgan was facing her for French team Olympique Lyon in the first leg of the semi-finals of the UEFA Women's Champions League.
It is a situation that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago but the recent growth of well-resourced women's teams at big European clubs such as City, Lyon and the other two semi-finalists, Barcelona and Paris St Germain, has changed the landscape for women players.
The big clubs are assembling increasingly international squads and recruiting from far and wide and Lyon's Norwegian international striker Ada Hederberg sees it as completely natural that American women would now come to Europe.
"If you are an American player I would think you would want to play at the highest level and you have the Champions League here in Europe, so why not?" she told Reuters after Lyon enjoyed a comfortable 3-1 win against City.
"You have European football growing a lot now -– Barcelona, the Spanish teams, the English league, France, Germany, the game is growing in Europe and it is going to be exciting the next few years to see what happens," she said.
Both Lloyd, who scored a hat-trick in the 2015 World Cup final, and Morgan are on temporary deals in Europe while remaining under contract with their U.S. National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) teams.
Lloyd will return to her Houston Dash at the end of the England's Women's Super League Spring Series while Morgan is due back with Orlando Pride after Lyon's season ends in June.
The NWSL is the latest attempt, after some failed efforts, to establish a solid professional club league in the U.S. and while it is making progress, limited budgets may lead to more Americans turning to Europe.
Recently Heather O'Reilly, a three-time gold-medal winner with the U.S., joined Arsenal while emerging American talent Crystal Dunn quit the NWSL's Washington Spirit to join Chelsea.
City's England international midfielder Jill Scott welcomes the trend and says she would not be surprised to see more Americans packing their bags soon.
"It is fantastic that we can attract players like this, you see the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, players are now wanting to come and play in our league. That shows the progress that we have made and hopefully we can keep increasing the standard of our league and we can attract more big names," she said.
Lloyd says she had received plenty of questions from American players about life at Manchester City and the opportunities in Europe.
"I have had nothing but good things to say," she told Reuters, adding that she too would expect more of her compatriots to follow her path, especially before the big international competitions.
“I think so, time is running out though as we get close to 2019 and 2020 because those are big years with the World Cup and Olympics, it would have to be between now and 2019.
"It is a great competition to be able to compete in -– it's been a lot of fun," she said.
While Lloyd has been full of praise for the facilities available to City players, Morgan has made a point of highlighting the different styles of play that can be learnt in Europe and when she signed for Lyon talked of being "immersed in a soccer culture".
"It has always been a dream of mine to 'live' soccer and to compete in the Champions League," she said.
Although the U.S. college system continues to be an attractive option, the growth of big clubs in Europe and leagues such as England's Women's Super League, are likely to limit the number of players heading across the Atlantic to play club football in the States.
"You can see young English players in this league getting better and better. Why would they want to move to another league when ours is getting better and better?" asked Scott.
Editing by Clare Fallon