PARIS — Alex Morgan scored five times against Thailand in the Women’s World Cup opener for the United States.
She hasn’t scored since.
She sat and rested in a victory over Chile. Against Sweden, she missed the second half after a heavy on-field collision. Morgan said she recovered to full health, but in Monday’s round of 16 victory over Spain, she found herself a target as the Spanish defense seemed to make a point of playing her physically.
She was repeatedly knocked to the ground, and by game’s end, a spent Morgan was subbed out for Carli Lloyd. Officially, she suffered five fouls against her, although she later estimated it would have been more than 10 if the referee had whistled them all.
“Reckless,” Morgan described it.
It was not the performance it wanted collectively, or Morgan wanted individually. “As a forward, you always want to score in run-of-play,” she said.
And it’s probably not the performance that can get the team past fellow powerhouse France on Friday (3 p.m. ET) in a game pitting the world’s two highest-ranked teams.
Is Morgan hurt? And even if she is, does it matter?
“No, I’m feeling good,” Morgan said. “I got a knock [in the Sweden] game, but luckily I recovered. Maybe the Spain players saw that and wanted to, kind of, be a little more aggressive with me ...
“I think that they designed to be more aggressive, which they showed. We got a lot of free kicks out of it, we could’ve capitalized on it more than we did. But at the end of the day, it showed just the physicality.”
Well, if Spain was physical then France promises to take it to the next level. This is especially true if there is a belief that Morgan is at all fragile at the moment. Her speed and finishing ability makes her extremely dangerous. But you can’t run while laying on the ground.
The French backline is powered by Wendie Renard and Griedge Mbock Bathy, two of the most imposing players in the world. Renard stands a towering 6-foot-2, the tallest player in the World Cup, and has proven herself capable of shutting down opposing attacks.
The 5-foot-7 Morgan hasn’t scored against the French in three games, dating to 2016. The United States has two losses and a draw against France during that span.
“They are a challenging opponent and they are always going to show up for big games,” Morgan said.
This is certainly a big one. Many believe whichever team advances Friday will win the World Cup. The FIFA pingpong-ball draw set up a de facto finals early.
The U.S. can win without Alex Morgan scoring goals, but it certainly would be a lot easier if she were filling the net. She’s the best scorer on the team, a clutch presence and someone defenses have to key on. She also walks onto the field with plenty of confidence. Yes, France is good, but she certainly isn’t running scared.
“They’ve struggled at times [in the World Cup],” Morgan said of France. “And we are going to have to look at that and pick apart the weaknesses.”
Morgan became a star based on her big-game heroics, with a knack for scoring late, critical goals. Just weeks after her 22nd birthday, she recorded a goal and an assist in the 2011 World Cup final, a loss to Japan but a performance that announced her to the world. The Americans’ 2015 World Cup title, however, came mostly without her — she missed time with injuries and Lloyd became a hero.
At 29, this is Morgan’s World Cup and this is her team. She has shown no hint of quit in her.
She may have been hobbled and bruised against Spain, but she didn’t want to come out of the game. And while she didn’t score, she grabbed the ball and was prepared to take the second penalty kick that proved decisive. It wasn’t until the U.S. coaching staff ordered Megan Rapinoe to take it that she conceded.
“It’s ultimately the coaches’ decision,” Morgan noted, clearly wishing she had been able to shoot despite being pleased with Rapinoe’s success. “So the ball went back to Rapinoe. I’m happy taking it.”
Now she’ll have to shake off whatever battle scars she’s acquired during this World Cup and face off against the most physically imposing defense in the field.
It won’t be easy. It isn’t supposed to be.
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