VANCOUVER, B.C.—At the start of the CONCACAF women's soccer Olympic qualifying tournament, there was plenty of discussion that the event could be a breakthrough moment for 22-year-old forward Alex Morgan. The tournament as a whole didn't really happen that way, but Sunday's final certainly did: Morgan scored two goals, including a crucial fourth-minute marker that took the hometown crowd out of it, and set up two more to lead the Americans to a 4-0 win over Canada.
It may have been mostly pride that was on the line for the teams, as they'd both already qualified for this summer's Olympics, but given the depth of these squads, Sunday's match also served as an opportunity for players to make their case for increased roles going forward. Morgan's performance was the most impressive of the night, and it will undoubtedly help her cause as the U.S. heads onwards and upwards towards London.
Morgan had impressed as a substitute during the 2011 World Cup but had yet to really make a mark on the American side as a starter heading into this tournament. She continued as a sub for most of this tournament, and she didn't really even make a huge impression there apart from a few scattered highlights (such as an 89th-minute strike against Costa Rica), but coach Pia Sundhage showed faith in her by giving her a start Sunday, and Morgan repaid that faith in spades. She wasted no time, taking a flick-on from Abby Wambach in the fourth minute and using her speed to blow through the Canadian defense before driving the ball home from 12 yards out.
Morgan said the goal came straight out of the Americans' game plan of using their speed to challenge the Canadian defense.
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"That's something we talked about before the game," she said. "We talked about going at their back line, stretching them a bit, showing them our speed, and luckily, the first five minutes we broke through their back line and I got that goal. That's what we had talked about before the game, and we executed it during the game."
The goal deflated a fired-up, sold-out crowd of 25,427 that was mostly pro-Canadian, and Morgan said quieting them gave the U.S. momentum.
"I thought the crowd was amazing," she said. "We love playing in front of big crowds and them chanting 'Can-a-da!' made me motivated even more. I think it made us pumped up even more, because they are our rivals and we wanted to kind of quiet them a little bit."
The crowd may have been briefly quieted, but it rebounded to vociferously root its team on. Morgan and her American teammates never dialed their play down, though, and they notched a second goal in the 24th minute. Megan Rapinoe moved down the left side, then swung it to Morgan, who made a tremendous run down the right flank before delivering a picturesque cross to Wambach, who headed it home to move into second all time on the women's world leaderboard for goals in international play. Morgan and Wambach weren't done there, though, as just four minutes later, Morgan blasted a shot off the post, then collected the rebound and nudged it over to Wambach for the American legend's 131st international goal.
Morgan said she and Wambach haven't played together as much recently thanks to the Americans' single-striker formation, but the two of them still have a great connection.
"After switching to the 4-2-3-1, we haven't played up top together as much as we used to, but I think we feel really comfortable, we can anticipate each other's runs so that always helps," she said. "I feel really comfortable with Abby up top."
Wambach said she was thrilled not just to move into second place all time, but to do so with meaningful goals.
"Those two goals were great goals for us," she said. "We didn't win the last qualifying tournament, so this was a big game for all of us."
The Americans weren't finished. They kept the pressure on throughout the match and added a final tally when Lauren Cheney put a superb ball through to Morgan in the 56th minute. Morgan raced through the Canadian defense, evaded a sliding Rhian Wilkinson, crashed into onrushing keeper Erin McLeod, somehow stayed on her feet, spun around to avoid a sliding tackle from Shannon Woeller and deposited the ball into the open net. Morgan said that goal came from perseverance more than skill.
"I wasn't sure if I'd be called offside, but I continued the play," she said. "I didn't actually see the girl behind me until she was right next to me. I tried to take the goalkeeper on one vs. one and fortunately luck was on my side, but it wasn't the prettiest of the goals I've had."
Overall, it was an incredible showing from Morgan. She said she felt pressure to step up given her lackluster showing in the tournament so far and the impressive performances from other young American strikers like Sydney Leroux. Leroux scored five goals in the second half against Guatemala and came on in the second half against Mexico, while Morgan remained on the bench during that game. Morgan said she understood that decision, but it still fired her up.
"I didn't have a great first two games, I didn't score a lot of goals, I didn't impact the game the way I'd like to in those first two games, so it was right to play Syd, who had scored five goals in the game before, but emotionally, you know, I was mad," she said. "Of course, I think every player wants to play. I come off the bench frequently, so I wasn't used to sitting on the bench for a full 90, but I was very happy that Syd scored five goals and that she was able to come in the game the next game and did really well. It motivated me even more to play my best."
Sundhage said she was pleased with how the combination of Wambach and Morgan worked out.
"They had a pretty good night," she said. "[Morgan] brought us something special with Abby."
Sundhage said the Americans' depth means no spot is guaranteed, though.
"We have so many options," she said. "I look at our bench and we've got 20 good players. Our job, especially in tournaments, is to find the best starting lineup."
Sundhage said Morgan has played herself into strong contention for a starting role going forward, but much will depend on how others play when given opportunities leading up to the Olympics.
"That's the beauty of the team we have right now, we will still change the starting lineup quite a bit," Sundhage said.
She said if there was a game Monday, though, Morgan would be starting.
"If we play tomorrow, I'd say yes."
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