Alex Morgan, after a nightmarish year, proves her persistent worth in resurgent USWNT win

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 03: Jenna Nighswonger #3 of the United States celebrates scoring with Alex Morgan #7 during the first half against Colombia during the 2024 Concacaf W Gold Cup quarterfinal match at BMO Stadium on March 03, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

A few short weeks ago, six months after a nightmarish World Cup, Alex Morgan was being phased out.

She was left off the U.S. women's national team roster for the Concacaf W Gold Cup. She was, after 14 storybook years, on the outside looking in at two young strikers. She was an Olympic gold medalist but, suddenly, a 2024 Olympic long shot.

Until she got an unlikely call on the eve of the Gold Cup. There'd been an injury; the USWNT needed her.

And less than two weeks later, on Sunday night at BMO Stadium in Los Angeles, Morgan proved her persistent worth.

She led a resurgent USWNT victory in the Gold Cup quarterfinals, 3-0 over Colombia. She didn't score — and hasn't scored much over the past 11 months. But she's still a target, a link and a pest.

She pressed, and pounced on a weak Colombian pass in the 10th minute. She played a one-two with Lindsey Horan, and won a penalty, which Horan converted.

Twelve minutes later, she used a subtle hip-check and years of experience to win a header. She flicked a long ball into the path of Jenna Nighswonger, who doubled the U.S. lead.

And on the brink of halftime, Morgan occupied a Colombian defender as Jaedyn Shaw slashed into the box and put the U.S. up 3-0.

Shaw, a 19-year-old phenom, was the most electric American player on the field. She's the most promising player in the pool. She and Nighswonger, the reigning NWSL Rookie of the Year, will rightfully grab plenty of headlines.

But they and their generation were supposed to monopolize headlines throughout the Gold Cup and beyond. This, the USWNT's first official competition since its disastrous 2023 World Cup, was supposed to solidify a changing of the guard. It was supposed to be about Mia Fishel and Sophia Smith, who'd finally get her shot as the USWNT's center forward.

Instead, the USWNT's most consequential game since August was, in many ways, about two veterans, Morgan and Alyssa Naeher.

Fishel, a rising 22-year-old striker, tore her ACL in training a day before the tournament. Smith started two of three group games, but floundered in the first half of a 2-0 loss to Mexico, and was yanked at halftime. Smith has been a prolific NWSL goalscorer. But she has, at times with the USWNT, struggled to connect and combine with her fellow forwards.

She also hardly defends. She's a liability leading the U.S. press. Whether it's effort or inexperience, her defensive shortcomings were one of several reasons the U.S. failed to suffocate Mexico on Monday, as decades of USWNTs so often did in the past.

So interim head coach Twila Kilgore made a bold call for the quarterfinal. Against a World Cup quarterfinalist, with pressure and external panic heightening, she dropped Smith for Morgan. And Morgan rose to the occasion.

"Being on the front foot, and making sure that our 9 and 10 was ready to defend, was a really important thing in the game," Kilgore said afterward. "I thought Alex did a tremendous job, had a very veteran performance."

It wasn't just her role in the goals. Morgan sealed off Colombian center backs, with her back to goal, and linked a U.S. attack that had been so disconnected against Mexico.

She has lost a step, and been derided for loose touches and errant finishes. When Kilgore left her off the Gold Cup roster in February, Morgan had scored just four goals in 29 games since the April 2023 international break. On Sunday, her futility in front of goal continued; she somehow missed a gaping net from 2 yards away in the second half.

But outside the penalty box, she is still an elite striker.

And at the other end of the field, Naeher is still an elite goalkeeper.

She, like Morgan, will at some point need to be replaced. But for now, like on Sunday night, she is still a game-saver. She sprung to her left to palm away a Linda Caicedo pile-driver.

Six minutes later, Naeher pulled off a world-class save with her fingertips. Without her, the score would've been 2-2; because of her, it stayed 2-0.

Much of the opening half was tight and chippy. It was nowhere near as one-sided as the final scoreline suggests.

But it changed in moments. Or, rather, Morgan and the youngsters changed it. They're on to the Gold Cup semifinals in San Diego, where, on Wednesday (10:15 p.m. ET, Paramount+, ESPN Deportes, ESPN+), they'll face Canada.