In Alex Morgan’s first World Cup in 2011, she was as a young, late-game substitute who showcased her knack for scoring the biggest of goals in the biggest of moments. Her second (2015) was mostly about recovering from injury and then finally serving as a bit of a decoy as the Americans swept their way to glory.
Now the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, whose draw was announced Saturday, sets up to be her tournament – a familiar face set to seize a new role, team leader and unqualified star.
The Americans were drawn as the top seed in Group F during the selection ceremony in Paris. The group includes Thailand, Chile and, most notably, rival Sweden.
The Swedes are led by former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage. They knocked the Americans out of the 2016 Olympics in an intense contest that was decided by penalty kicks. The United States will have a chance at early revenge in pursuit of moving onto the knockout stages.
The Americans will play Thailand on June 11 in Reims, Chile on June 16 in Paris and Sweden on June 20 in the port city of Le Havre.
The United States is No. 1 in the FIFA world rankings and thus the favorite to capture consecutive world cups for the first time ever (it has won in 1991, 1999 and 2015). Germany, France, England, Canada and Australia were the other top seeds. The Americans haven’t lost since July 2017, making expectations as high as the stakes. That’s not bothering Morgan.
“We are in a really great place and I couldn’t be happier with how it has gone,” Morgan told FIFA.com. “… While the public and media might see us as ‘defending’ this title, for us it’s a totally new challenge with a new team and a new dynamic. Hunger won’t be an issue.”
The new U.S. group is the typical combination of proven veterans and fresh-faced phenoms. The United States talent-producing machine is alive and well, at least in women’s soccer.
Morgan, 29, has been a superstar since the 2011 World Cup when she became the first player to ever score and record an assist in a final. It was a crushing loss to Japan (2-2 through regulation and 3-1 loss in PKs), but her running and finishing ability was undeniable.
Her knack for scoring lots of goal – and lots of important goals – combined with her telegenic looks made her a fan and sponsor favorite. It catapulted her to commercial endorsements, best-selling books, fashion spreads and movie roles.
Morgan was new then. She turned 22 during the Cup. But she didn’t start a single match, her speed used to exploit tiring defenses. That World Cup team’s leadership role was held mostly by fellow forward Abby Wambach.
Four years later, Morgan was recovering from injury during much of the Americans’ 2015 World Cup triumph in Canada. She began the Cup as a sub, although she worked her way back to the starting lineup. She scored one goal, but that was a tournament dominated by midfielder Carli Lloyd.
Morgan was still someone who commanded defensive attention, even if she wasn’t finding the back of the net. In the World Cup Final, the threat of Morgan making a big run drew Japan’s goaltender off her line and allowed Lloyd to volley her famous half-field goal. It was Lloyd, however, who had the first-half hat trick and was named FIFA Player of the Year. The U.S. could win without Morgan’s offense.
Wambach is retired. So too is goalkeeper Hope Solo, who was a huge presence on multiple teams. Lloyd, 36, is still a major talent but has a lesser role, starting just five of 19 games this year. The U.S. doesn’t lack for talent – Julie Ertz, Megan Rapinoe, Mallory Pugh – but it is Morgan who has been the dominant factor of late.
She’s laced in 18 goals in 19 games this year with the USWNT. No one else has more than seven. Seven of them came during five World Cup qualifying games. She’s scored 25 in her last 26 games and is sitting at 98 for her career. She should become the third youngest American to break 100 (Mia Hamm at age 26, Wambach at 29). She was named US Soccer 2018 Player of the Year and she became a captain – along with Lloyd and Rapinoe.
“I’m really happy where I am on this team right now and I feel my role is greater than it ever has been,” Morgan said. “I’ve enjoyed becoming a captain and I’ve embraced that. So yeah, I feel like I’m playing the best football of my career so far. That being said, I’m also always looking for improvements and I definitely feel that I still have more to give.”
Late 20s and early 30s is often considered a soccer player’s prime, the peak combination of physical skill and mental experience. That’s her now.
Many of the new players grew up of dreaming of becoming Alex Morgan, watching that 2011 Cup Final or her incredible 2012 season, when she netted 27 goals in 31 games. That included the legendary 123rd-minute header in the semifinals of the Olympics that put the USA past rival Canada and on its way to gold.
Likely teammates this summer include Pugh (age 20), Andi Sullivan (22), Rose Lavelle (23) and Crystal Dunn (24).
Yet while Morgan has remained a power in many U.S. seasons, in the Women’s National Soccer League and across the media ever since, the biggest stages have been quiet for her as she’s battled unfortunately timed injuries.
The Americans are unlikely to go far if Morgan scores just once next summer, like in 2015. Meanwhile the 2016 Olympics ended in the quarterfinals, a stunningly early departure. Morgan scored two goals in four games, but was stopped in penalty kicks against Sweden.
Morgan is on track to go down among the greatest American players of all time. To hit the pantheon of Michelle Akers, Hamm, Wambach, Lloyd and others, however, likely requires leading a team to a Cup. That’s the standard for U.S. women’s soccer.
Twenty-nineteen is an opportunity waiting to be seized. The 2020 Olympics in Tokyo is waiting quickly after.
If this is, indeed, Alex Morgan’s time, then it’s all laying out in front of her, starting in June.
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