LYON, France — Alex Morgan exploded into the larger American consciousness right around this time eight years ago, during another Women’s World Cup final.
She had a goal off the bench in a win over France in the 2011 semifinals, but the then-22-year-old’s true breakout didn’t arrive until four days later. In that championship match against Japan, she once again entered as a second-half substitute and scored.
With just over 20 minutes to play, she figured she’d just given the United States women’s national team its record third World Cup title. Then the Japanese equalized. The U.S. would go on to lose the match on penalties, and Morgan learned a valuable lesson that has stayed with her throughout her career.
“I think I was very naive also in thinking that was going to be the game-winning goal, thinking that’s how it was going to end,” Morgan said two days before she’ll play in her third World Cup final, here against the Netherlands on Sunday [11 a.m. ET].
Morgan has changed considerably over the last eight years. She’s now an undisputed starter and the co-captain of the U.S. team who is tied atop the scoring chart at France 2019. Those changes are obvious. Then you listen to fellow veteran Kelley O’Hara talk about all the smaller things the 30-year-old striker has done to ensure that the feeling of stumbling at the last hurdle isn’t repeated this summer.
“She’s obviously grown as a player, as a person, as a leader,” said O’Hara, Morgan’s teammate at the last three World Cups. “She’s scored a lot of goals in this tournament already, but I think what people should talk about more is the amount of defensive work and just doing exactly what the game plan is asking her to do, which maybe sometimes is being the one who isn’t [scoring].”
This selflessness was on full display in the quarterfinal win over the host Les Bleues. Afterward, midfielder Samantha Mewis noted how seeing their superstar teammate embrace the unglamorous grunt work makes others do the same. Turns out Morgan’s example to the younger players extends beyond the field.
“Alex does such a good job,” said Lindsey Horan, “of helping us younger girls along the way and then showing the standard every single day in training. She’s been a top player for the U.S. team and scored so many goals, and she doesn’t really stop. She never gets complacent.”
“That speaks a lot to us,” added Horan, who like Mewis is a World Cup newbie. “That’s awesome for us young players to look up to.”
Beyond her added defensive and leadership responsibilities, Morgan is also just a better and more well-rounded player now than she’s ever been. She credits the six months she spent on loan to French club Olympique Lyonnais in 2017 for some of that improvement. Perhaps more of a single-minded striker as a youngster, she’s transformed herself into the sort of forward who makes life easier for those around her.
“I think she finds unique gaps to get in behind the backline,” playmaker Rose Lavelle said. “I feel like it’s kind of helped me have a better vision of the game.” Those sorts of subtleties often go unnoticed by fans and media members.
“We were just speaking about that the other day in one of our meetings,” Horan said. “Maybe she hadn’t scored a goal in a few games [but] she was doing so much to help our team score. It created so much space. What she was doing was helping so many other players.
A lot of people who aren’t inside the game don’t really understand that,” she continued. “But what she’s done in the last few games has been so great for us.”
And it’s helped get her and her team to a record third consecutive final. After her star turn in 2011, Morgan went into Canada 2015 nursing an injury and was relatively quiet in the decider, when Carli Lloyd stole the show with three goals as the Americans exacted revenge on Japan with an emphatic 5-2 triumph in Vancouver.
Now, eight years after introducing herself to the world, Morgan has the chance to cement her legacy with a signature performance. Asked about the U.S. headliner after the Netherlands beat Sweden in the semis, Dutch midfielder Daniëlle van de Donk predicted that Morgan would once again be held scoreless. It sounded like a bet Morgan was willing to take.
“I hope that’s not the case for me,” she said. “We’ll see on Sunday.”
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