Why Alex Morgan was the unsung hero of the USWNT's big World Cup win over France

PARIS — Megan Rapinoe stole the show, but Alex Morgan was every bit as important in the United States’ 2-1 World Cup quarterfinal win against France on Friday.

It was Morgan, the U.S. captain at Parc des Princes, who drew the foul that set up Rapinoe’s free kick goal less than five minutes into the match, giving the Americans a lead they would never relinquish. And it was Morgan’s seeing-eye through pass to winger Tobin Heath that started the sequence that lead to Rapinoe’s second — the eventual game-winner — with a half-hour left to play.

“Alex put her heart and soul into this game,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said afterward. “I think she showed a lot of guts tonight.”

She also showed her versatility. Morgan came into the match tied in the competition’s Golden Boot race with England’s Ellen White and Australia’s Sam Kerr. (Rapinoe also has five goals.) But all of Morgan’s strikes came in the tournament-opening 13-0 rout of Thailand way back on June 11.

Ellis rested her in the second group game against Chile and pulled her halfway through the first round finale vs. Sweden after Morgan took a vicious kick the calf. Knowing that, Spain targeted her in the round of 16, fouling her repeatedly, and heading into the France match, it was fair to wonder if she was more banged up that she or Ellis was letting on.

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 28:  Alex Morgan of the USA celebrates following victory in the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France Quarter Final match between France and USA at Parc des Princes on June 28, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Matthew Lewis - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
Alex Morgan didn't score in Friday's 2-1 win against France, but she played a huge role in the United States advancing to the semifinals of the FIFA Women's World Cup. (Matthew Lewis/Getty)

Injured or not, though, there was no way Morgan wasn’t starting this game, which was being billed by many beforehand as the biggest in women’s soccer history. She even shook off a first-half ball to the head against Les Bleues that left her wobbly. After returning to the field, she switched things up, going from leading the three-woman front line line to more of a deeper-lying playmaker.

“I think I had a different role tonight,” Morgan said. “We saw their center backs dropping in and not really wanting to get exposed in behind, so I was able to get on the ball more than I have in the past, especially against Spain.”

Said defender Abby Dahlkemper: “She proved why she’s one of the top strikers in the world, not only being able to score goals but set up goals as well.”

But Morgan’s contributions in this match weren’t only on the attacking end. In a game in which the hosts enjoyed more than 60 percent of the possession, her high-pressing of the French players led to countless rushed and misplayed passes.

“It just gives the other team’s midfield less time on the ball and they’re kind of constantly looking over their shoulder,” said U.S. destroyer Samantha Mewis, who once again started in place of Lindsey Horan, of Morgan’s tireless running. “It makes my job easier, but it also inspires me that then I have to do that for the back line.”

“She worked so hard defensively, and was kind of that link player in front of the CBs to connect in transition,” added Dahlkemper.

That willingness to the dirty work that doesn’t end up on the scoresheet is the stuff championships teams are made of. When it comes from perhaps the squad’s best player and undoubtedly its biggest star, it matters that much more.

“Starting from the top down, with the work that she does, it carries through to the rest of the team and sets such a good example.” Mewis said. “We know that if she’s working that hard, we all have to work that hard.”

“When you’re the lone striker, sometimes it’s challenging, but she embraces that role,” Ellis said. “She worked her tail off.”

More from Yahoo Sports: