WINNIPEG, Manitoba – Alex Morgan walked over to a third successive group of reporters on Sunday to discuss her injury ahead of the United States’ 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup opener against Australia on Monday.
She answered the same questions she had been asked minutes earlier about her left knee injury, a bone bruise that has kept her out of competitive matches for club and country since April 11. Even she isn’t sure how or exactly when she sustained the injury.
Morgan’s injury is the talking point of this United States team heading into the World Cup. It’s true that no one player will win the World Cup for a team. But Morgan’s presence on the field is as essential as it gets for the U.S. women in their quest to end a 16-year World Cup title drought.
The U.S. women have very clearly defined their goal as win this World Cup or fail. And Morgan is the face of the team carrying those huge expectations.
Morgan is available for selection on Monday, according to both her and coach Jill Ellis. Her fitness level, however, will be an issue. Whether or not she plays is the question of the day. How effective she can be is a detail that could define the tournament.
“If called upon to start, I’d be ready to start,” Morgan said after Sunday’s training session, during which she had tape around her left knee. “Obviously I don’t know what Jill’s plan is, but if I need to play 90 (minutes), then I will play 90.”
In a national team program whose history is richer than any other, Morgan is the heir apparent to Abby Wambach, international soccer’s all-time leading goal-scorer. Wambach had the torch passed to her by Mia Hamm, the previous iconic U.S. women’s national team star who could transcend sports and pop culture.
Wambach, who enters the 2015 Women’s World Cup with 182 goals – most among men or women – has repeatedly said that she hopes Morgan breaks her scoring record one day.
No pressure, right?
Morgan’s role with the U.S. has changed drastically since 2011. Four years ago in Germany, Morgan was a super-sub who was just coming into her own as a professional player. She was a rookie playing in the humble but star-studded surroundings of Rochester and Buffalo, N.Y. She was also a star in the making, who first announced herself in Germany at the 2011 Women’s World Cup.
It was that year – in Germany and in western New York – that the Diamond Bar, Calif., native laid the foundation for a record-breaking 2012 that legitimized the conversation of her being a player with the potential to live up to the all-time greats.
Hype doesn’t guarantee success, however. If anything, it only raises the bar for one to meet success.
“She has developed,” current U.S. coach Jill Ellis told me in late May. “A lot of players, when they are at the top level of wherever they are at on top of youth teams, sometimes that commitment to continue to get better may or may not be there. But I think that is something that has really been important for Alex. It’s constantly been the, ‘How do I get better? What do I need to do to get better?’ Those are questions and that’s the kind of feedback that she wants. That says a lot internally about who she is.”
The same commitment to get fit in time for the World Cup is what has brought Morgan to this point.
Morgan entered 2011 surrounded by a great deal of hype, and with good reason. She was the No. 1 draft pick in the now defunct WPS in 2011. She had just helped save the United States from complete embarrassment, scoring in the final minutes of the first leg of a two-leg World Cup qualifying playoff game in the north of Italy. The U.S., ranked No. 1 in the world at that time, would be the last team to qualify for the 2011 World Cup thanks in large part to that goal (the Americans beat Italy, 2-0, in a two-leg playoff).
Then came the 2011 World Cup, where Morgan scored in the final that the U.S. eventually lost to Japan in penalty kicks. When she returned to Rochester, N.Y., a few days later, the usual crowds of about 3,000 fans were five times as large. The streets were shut down as she and some U.S. teammates made their way through the city. And the high-pitched screeches of young girls at Sahlen’s Stadium weren’t just for hometown hero Abby Wambach, but for her protégé, Morgan.
“I think the transition occurred during that 2011 season,” says Aaran Lines, coach of the Western New York Flash, Morgan’s club team in 2011. Lines had a front-row seat to Morgan’s rise to stardom. The Flash had one of the greatest rosters ever assembled, including five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta, Canada legend Christine Sinclair and Sweden captain Caroline Seger. Morgan was just a kid.
“She was a quiet, hard-working, humble, young girl,” Lines says of Morgan.
Early in 2012 she was benched by then U.S. coach Pia Sundhage during Olympic qualifying. The moment is largely lost in time, but it lit a fire under Morgan, sparking a historic year that saw her play a large role in the United States’ third straight Olympic gold medal.
By the end of 2012, Morgan was taking the world by storm. She tallied 28 goals and 21 assists in 31 matches that year, a remarkable production that marked only the second time in history a U.S. player scored 20 goals and assisted 20 goals. The other player to achieve that? Mia Hamm.
The most famous of Morgan’s goals in 2012 was the Olympic semifinal game-winner against Canada in extra time, the most dramatic of headers in what is considered one of the greatest games ever played. The U.S. won 4-3 in controversial fashion. Morgan’s goal stands as the latest in FIFA history for men and women, a 123rd minute tally.
All of the on-field successes have led to numerous sponsorship opportunities. Morgan was recently named one of the world’s most marketable athletes. She is a Nike player who also has a deal with Coca-Cola. She is the face of ChapStick.
But Morgan said she has learned to say no to certain opportunities in order to not take on too much off the field. The demands of media and endorsers can be tiring, as she learned in years past. Juggling all of that is part of Morgan’s progression from newcomer in 2011 to the face of the team and a pop-culture figure. She is almost something of a veteran at this stage on a team where that word isn’t used lightly.
“I’ve just seen her evolve into more of a leadership role,” Ellis said. “And a lot of players shoulder the responsibility, but a lot of the times she is one of the high-profile athletes on this team and with that comes a lot of the off the field demands, which I think she’s handled very, very well.”
Years ago there was a catch-phrase: “It’s Alex Morgan time.” It was known as the final minutes of a match, when Sundhage would insert the speedy Morgan into the game against tired defenses, and Morgan would seemingly always score.
But times have changed, and Alex Morgan’s time is now.
“There’s definitely a pressure that I put on myself and that I feel from maybe my team and fans,” she said in April. “But I think if you look historically at this team, we play better with pressure.”
That’s the hope for Morgan and the U.S. They now have the weight of the World Cup on their shoulders.