LYON, France — She’s heard all the gossip and all the noise and all the outside drama that has enveloped this United States run through the World Cup.
Tweets and comments and criticism – too many goals, not enough goals, visits to the political buildings in Washington, visits to hotels in Lyon. There’s been more. There will probably be more to come.
There’s been a lot of tea spilled about the United States women’s national team, accurate or less so.
So after Alex Morgan got her head on a Lindsey Horan cross and directed it into the English net to give the Americans a 2-1 lead they would ride to a tense semifinal victory, she decided to send her own message.
She stood up straight and mimicked sipping a cup of tea.
“It was just a little of pinkies up,” she smiled after. “... That’s the tea.”
“Maybe I can send her some Tetley’s,” said English goalkeeper Carly Tedford, who seemed amused. “Maybe that’s just her sticking two fingers to someone. I don’t know who it is.”
It could have been a lot of people, including English coach Phil Neville, who all but deemed the United States arrogant in one of this tournament’s more inane controversies. Neville was upset that an USWNT operations manager scouted out the hotel FIFA will put the Americans before Sunday’s final (11 a.m. ET) against either Sweden or the Netherlands. England was staying there and Neville claimed the recon mission was a breach of “etiquette” … although he took his lumps on postgame.
“They can now have our hotel,” he laughed.
Or it could have just been the general banter around the club. It’s been a bit of an exhausting run for the U.S. through this tournament, a tough side of the bracket, minimal rest. It's also the seemingly daily drama that threatens, but never succeeds, to divide and derail, no matter how much the players get barraged on social media by Americans who say they no longer will root for them.
For a team that wins and wins, it never really comes easy.
“It’s always this way because when you are the premier team in the world, you are always going to have noise, external stuff to deal with,” coach Jill Ellis said. “We have a unique way of dealing with it … It goes back to the mindset, we are here for one thing, not lawsuits, not silly trumped up things, not noise. We are here for one thing, that’s the trophy.”
Morgan knows that as well as anyone. On her 30th birthday, she qualified for her third consecutive World Cup Final. In 2011, she scored a goal and recorded an assist but was part of a crushing defeat to Japan. Four years later she celebrated a definitive victory in a rematch.
There’s something unique about knowing both the pain and the joy of the event, especially as you again chase one while trying to avoid the other.
It’s also about understanding the bond that this shared pursuit can bring to the team. The weeks on the road together. The endless meetings and training sessions. The need to fully commit to everyone on the roster.
“Each tournament for me has given me something different and I have looked at it through it in a different lens,” Morgan said.
This time she is a captain, a veteran, a leader. She’s supposed to deliver game-winning goals in semifinals. She’s supposed to stand up for the squad.
She sees a team that puts team first, one that accepts its roles and supports its differences. Bench players excel when they get the chance to start. Starters accept sitting on the bench when injuries or match-ups dictate.
On Tuesday it was Lindsey Horan, who hadn’t started in a couple games, getting the nod and then delivering the volley that Morgan headed in. It was Christen Press subbing for an injured Megan Rapinoe and heading in her own goal.
It was Rapinoe, screaming relentless encouragement from the sideline and eventually even jogging to celebrate goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who herself has been under fire from some only to deliver a critical, late penalty kick save.
“I wasn’t sprinting,” Rapinoe said. “I am not allowed to run yet. I took it easy … Hopefully my up and down during the game wasn’t too stressful.”
It is even Morgan, who loves scoring goals more than anything, but gladly accepted different tactical roles at times during this tournament that opened up play for others. She scored five in the 13-0 victory over Thailand in the opener, but then hadn’t scored in the four games since.
“She’s a world-class goal scorer but she is also a world-class player,” defender Becky Sauerbunn said. “She has been doing things for this team to allow other players to score goals, like Megan Rapinoe, like Tobin Heath.”
This is the truth of the team, no matter what gets said on the outside. It’s why on the field the Americans are nearly impossible to rattle – “they are the standard bearer,” Neville said.
And why off the field they are truly impossible to break.
How can’t that be enough for the critics?
“I just saw all my teammates being so emotional after the game,” Morgan said. “Just knowing how much it means for each of us and doing it together … I think we’ve put so much into this journey together and now we have one more game to close it out.”
And when Morgan scored and had a stage to say what she wanted to say, she took it.
“I wanted to keep it interesting,” Morgan said. “I know Megan Rapinoe has the best celebrations so I had to step it up this game.
“I was just thinking of all the noise in the background and the fact this team has persevered through so much and not taken the easy route through this World Cup.
“That’s the tea.”
Alex Morgan’s tea, pinkies up.
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