USWNT turn to squad depth after physical play sidelines Alex Morgan

BIRDGEVIEW, Ill. —

After Alex Morgan had loped in pursuit of a ball that was zipping toward the box, and after Guatemala defender Londy Barrios had bumped into her, and Morgan had rolled her left ankle on the slick grass and stumbled to ground, just one thought crossed her mind: "Not again."

It was, after all, the ankle she had badly sprained last November, keeping her out until this past June. It was the same injury that her form had only just recovered from, as she had finally reclaimed her much-lauded sharpness in front of goal in recent weeks. And so things looked bleak for the United States women’s national team in that fateful 45th minute on Friday night. Not only had their star striker just been stretchered off, but they were only up 1-0 on Guatemala in their 2015 Women’s World Cup qualifier here. And like their meager 1-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago on Wednesday, it had been a struggle.

Things didn’t turn out so badly in the end. The Americans bulldozed the Guatemalans in the second half and won 5-0. And Morgan, while on crutches after the game, was optimistic that her injury wasn’t terribly severe.

"It was unfortunate," Morgan told FOX Sports 1’s Jenny Taft. "But I’m not feeling too bad right now. It actually feels okay."

"Initially, I was more scared on the field, knowing it was that same ankle that held me out for seven months," Morgan added. "After the doctors assessed it and it didn’t swell up too much, I felt a little relieved with the aftermath of it. I think it’ll be fine. It’ll just take a little bit of time."

US Soccer said today that MRI’s confirmed that Morgan did indeed sprain her left ankle, but no other damage was found. She’ll miss 4-6 weeks, which means she’s done for the rest of qualifying, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not nearly as bad as it could have been.

The USA faces Haiti on Monday in their final group stage match with Group A all but sown up. It was expected that head coach Jill Ellis would rest a slew of regulars like Morgan for that game anyway, in anticipation of next Friday’s semifinals. So chances were, many believed, that Morgan would have sat anyway. Ellis, however, pointed out that for the sake of continuity in her team’s form, that wasn’t necessarily so.

Still, there are replacement options aplenty. Abby Wambach, who was rested against Guatemala, could take back her old spot at the top of the attacking threesome. Or Sydney Leroux could slide in while Christen Press takes her spot on the wing. Heather O’Reilly, Amy Rodriguez and Tobin Heath are also options up front as well.

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"[Morgan] is a special player," said playmaker Megan Rapinoe. "But someone else will step up."

"We’ve talked a lot over the few months that I’ve been on board here about our depth," added Ellis. "So certainly she’s a tremendous player and a big impact for us. So it would be a loss, but I also think we have the personnel that we’ll be okay. Obviously we’d love to have Alex back."

Morgan’s absence will be manageable for the Americans, but her injury underscores a larger issue in this qualifying tournament thus far. The physicality has been immense, and referees haven’t addressed it.

Against Guatemala, referee Maurees Skeete of Guyana made no effort to curb the aggressive tackles. "There were quite a few reckless ones," said Rapinoe. "I don’t think the ref had that much control over the game. We’re mindful of that and trying to jump out of things when we can and try not to put ourselves in bad situations."

"We were lucky that there weren’t more injuries than that," said midfielder Carli Lloyd. "The game was at some points a little out of control. People are flying in with tackles. It’s pretty scary. We obviously know what happened with Ali Krieger."

During the CONCACAF qualifying tournament for the 2012 London Olympics, Krieger, the team’s right back, tore two ligaments in her knee on just such a reckless challenge. Absent protection from the referees, the players have to avoid risk on their own. "I kept telling the gang: ‘One or two touches. Keep it moving. If you take more than two touches they’re going to come in for us,’" said Lloyd.

Morgan’s sprain is indeed a mild one, sidelining her only for a short while, so it seems the Americans have escaped with only a modicum of collateral damage. But if nothing is done about this, if inexperienced referees continue to be overwhelmed by the occasion, it could be much worse the next time around.