LONDON – A couple days back Abby Wambach pulled Alex Morgan aside after practice and offered up perhaps the most revered comparison you can receive in American women's soccer.
Not since 2004, not since the Athens Games had Wambach felt like she had such a weapon, such a "partner in crime" running alongside her on the frontline of the U.S. women's soccer team.
Not since Mia Hamm, Wambach told her, has it been this good.
"I mean, Mia Hamm is a legend," Morgan said.
And Alex Morgan is on her way, the next generation of soccer superstar, vastly different than Mia, but part of the lineage and development of a sport, a national team and machinery of modern superstardom.
The U.S. faces Japan for the gold medal Thursday at Wembley Stadium (2:45 p.m. ET). For the Americans it's a highly anticipated rematch from last year's disappointing loss to the Japanese in the World Cup final, where the U.S. twice blew leads and lost on penalty kicks.
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If there is one key difference between now and then for the Americans, it's the rapid development of Alex Morgan, who has gone from bench player to potent goal scorer – 20 this year, including the dramatic 123rd-minute header to beat Canada on Monday in the semifinals.
"She has a gift," said coach Pia Sundhage.
The U.S. is seeking its third consecutive gold and while there are some holdovers from that original group of breakout soccer teams that ended their run in Athens in 2004, this is clearly a new group.
Wambach, perhaps more than anyone, is the bridge. In 2004 she was the young offensive star, then 24, learning the international game from the great Mia Hamm. Now she's sees Morgan, 23, and marvels at the boundless offensive potential and a teammate hurdling toward crossover stardom.
This is the future.
"I like to think of Alex as kind of the kid that has the world in front of her and is literally running at it with every step she takes, every shot she takes, every goal she scores," Wambach said.
[ Photos: U.S. soccer star Alex Morgan ]
On the field Wambach has someone who not only shares the goal-scorer burden, but also compliments her game. Morgan's rise has drawn defensive attention, leaving Wambach with more space to move in these Olympics. She's responded with a goal in each of the Americans' five games.
"In my opinion, no one can defend against both of us for a 90-minute period of time," Wambach said.
Morgan's ability has been clear since her high school days in Diamond Bar, Calif. Actually even before then.
At age five, already inspired by the play of Mia Hamm, who was then the young star of the U.S. team, she wrote on a piece of paper that she would one day be a professional athlete (in soccer of course). Her mother didn't dispute it. She kept the note. It now hangs in her office.
"I remember becoming passionate a lot because of Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly and the Fab Five," Morgan said.
By the time she showed up on the national level, everyone saw what was coming. She's fast, strong, creative. She just needed experience.
"We came up with the nickname of 'Baby Horse' for her when she first joined the team," teammate Megan Rapinoe said. "Just so much talent, obviously very raw and kind of wild. Now she's a beautiful stallion."
"Since I'm not technically the baby on the team they have upgraded me to stallion," Morgan said, sort of shrugging her shoulders.
It's more than that, though. The combination of a photogenic face and legitimate ability is marketing gold. Morgan is riding down a road that Hamm built, and these Olympics may catapult her.
"She's definitely a superstar," Rapinoe said. "I think what she's starting to show people who just saw her as a pretty face that scores goals is that she is so much more than that."
Hamm and Morgan are very different people. Mia was a student of the game, strategic, talented, yet slightly reserved and even shy. Morgan is faster, bigger, more physical and more aggressive.
It carries over off the field. Mia Hamm was in a shampoo ad. Alex Morgan was not merely in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, she posed in body paint.
So across the roster they joke about Morgan, the pretty face who can't stop scoring goals. There doesn't appear to be much resentment. She's treated differently than Hope Solo, which the club tries to limit from the media because no one knows what she might say.
Morgan they put front and smiling center. Wambach found her running mate and isn't afraid to compare her to the three biggest letters in American soccer. The U.S. team has its big-moment goal scorer and face of the future. They may not be in the finals without her.
This is what they want, from Mia to Morgan, posters hanging on walls, commercials running on television, another generation inspiring the next group of five-year-olds to write notes to their mom.
There's just one critical difference. Mia Hamm always won.
"That's my point with this group," Wambach said. "You've got to win to be legends."
Gold for the potential breakout star of the Olympics awaits Thursday.
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