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USWNT's Alex Morgan taking on leading role she was born to play

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Alex Morgan sternly defends USWNT goal celebrations (2:28)

Alex Morgan says it's impossible to make everyone love you following criticism of her team's goal celebrations amid their record 13-0 win over Thailand. (2:28)

REIMS, France -- One by one, the best women in the world began the biggest tournament of their lives this past week. France's Amandine Henry went first on a memorable opening night. Australia's Sam Kerr, Brazil's Marta, the Netherlands' Lieke Martens and others soon followed. Some shone; others struggled.

But here in Northern France, in a city where kings once were coronated, Alex Morgan waited and watched. With the United States among the last to start play in the Women's World Cup, and after waiting nearly three years to show she and the Americans remain the class of the sport, a few more days were bearable.

"Honestly, I was so inspired by watching all of the games," Morgan said. "Knowing that we were the last game of the first round and just seeing such great football being played here in France."

No one played football any better in the opening round of group games than Morgan. Her five goals matched Michelle Akers' nearly 30-year-old single-game World Cup record and fueled an American attack that set a tournament record with the USWNT's resounding 13-0 win against Thailand. Beyond the sheer statistical gaudiness of goals against an admittedly overmatched opponent, Morgan's night marked a climb back from injury and disappointment. Her third World Cup is to be the climax of her international career.

This time, there is no doubt the leading role is hers to play.

"From 2011 to 2015 to now, I've played a different role on this team going into each of those World Cups," Morgan said before this tournament. "So it brings this young sort of excitement ahead of that, knowing that my role is greater in the sense of wearing the captain's armband and really bearing that responsibility."

She scored her 100th career international goal earlier this year. She is a team captain, elevated to the role less than 12 months ago. She will celebrate her 30th birthday on July 2, the day the first World Cup semifinal will be played. She is in a fleeting sweet spot in an athletic life, having built a résumé that places her among the best in the world without yet yielding her physical skills to time's toll.

None of that was obvious as recently as three years ago. Despite scoring the late goal that forced extra time in the 2016 Rio Olympics quarterfinal against Sweden, Morgan was among those players whose misses from the penalty spot doomed the U.S. in the ensuing shootout. For the first time, the U.S. failed to reach the semifinals of a major tournament.

"I definitely look upon [the 2016 Olympics] for motivation and encouragement," Morgan said last week, "Because I never want to feel the way I felt after that tournament."

It wasn't the first time a major tournament was less than perfect. As painful as those Olympics were for Morgan, the 2011 World Cup hurt even more. A young supercharged substitute, she said she left the loss in the final against Japan feeling like she was part of the best team in the world but without the reward. And as satisfying as it was to reclaim the title in 2015, it came at the end of a tournament in which she struggled to find peak form after a series of injuries, including an ankle injury in qualifying and a knee injury that was still on the mend as that World Cup began.

Morgan already played her part in one of the sport's indelible moments -- her game-winning header in the 123rd minute of the 2012 Olympic semifinal against Canada -- but she is still waiting for the chance to make a World Cup her own in a way that propels her team to a title.

"She was kind of banged up, hurt in 2015," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said recently. "So [it's rewarding] to see her now start to come into the role I think she should have on this team. And that's making sure she's putting balls in the back of net, being our penetrative option, being our first defender -- but also being a payer that is lethal inside 18."

It seems a natural course of events now, but it really wasn't in the fall of 2016. After injuries limited her through the middle part of this decade, it wasn't obvious Morgan would again get the chance to play a commanding role in a World Cup. When Ellis sent a letter to players after the Olympics saying it was open competition for roster spots, no one had reason to feel challenged more than veterans like Morgan and her current front-line mates Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe.

Morgan played abroad professionally for powerhouse Lyon in 2017, a stint that had its own share of injury woes but pushed her while training with one of the only teams in the world as deep and talented as her own national team. It was, as much as anything, a fresh start. And a run of good health upon her return continues to coincide with goal production that far exceeds a mere hot streak. Beginning at the end of 2017 and including Tuesday's haul, she has scored 33 goals in her past 37 games for a national team whose 4-3-3 formation is built around her.

Goals followed confidence, and confidence followed goals.

"I think it's a combination," Ellis said. "Certainly for a goal scorer, scoring goals helps the confidence. But her movement is good, her decision making is just continuing to improve. So it's part her own evolution as a player. And then add that to the players around her and the service she gets, and then just her natural instincts and tendencies. We want to keep that going."

Morgan is a more complete player than ever before, better with the ball at her feet in tight spaces in and around the opponent's goal. Better when playing out wide, either temporarily during a particular sequence or to make room for both she and someone like Carli Lloyd on the field at the same time. She is better at hold-up play, providing, if not an exact replica, her own interpretation of Abby Wambach's presence in that way.

And she is more comfortable shaping the team's identity. With Lloyd primarily an option in reserve, Morgan is usually the most experienced played in the starting lineup. She may never be quite the same unfiltered presence that Wambach was or Rapinoe is. But from her prominent role in the legal and public campaign for equal pay to something as small as interactions with younger teammates at training, she appears more comfortable with a leadership profile.

"It's been great because I wanted to try to get as much of a pulse of the team as possible," Morgan said of the captaincy she shares with Rapinoe and Lloyd. "I've really tried to get a little more uncomfortable in my group of friends among the team -- and try to learn more about my teammates off of the field. I think that every single player on this team is of equal importance [for the] World Cup. We all have to understand our roles and play them perfectly on and off the field.

"So I think it's important that I'm kind of that liaison between the team and the coaches, and making sure that we're all doing things in unison and having that ultimate focus."

Asked after her record-matching performance against Thailand on Tuesday if she could have envisioned what transpired, she demurred. Then she noted she set a hat trick as her more modest goal. The line drew a laugh, but it didn't sound much like a joke.

It's a long race, but she's in the lead after the first leg.

"It's fun to go along this journey again," Morgan said. "I never take one day for granted. I always want to look at it as a way to learn and grow."