Morgan's presence in starting lineup gives USA fans reason to dream
For all the criticism Jill Ellis has received for tinkering with the United States women's national team lineup over the past year and toying with the team's identity, the experiments at the top of the attack were born out of necessity.
What does the U.S. do when striker Alex Morgan is declared off-limits due to a deep bone bruise? They gets Sydney Leroux starting alongside Abby Wambach or Christen Press. Or Amy Rodriguez pairing up with Wambach and Leroux.
Unfortunately for the U.S., what was billed as an embarrassment of riches in talent has not translated into a solid attacking tandem that gives the team the identity it needs in order to assert its essential personality. Until, that is, the third game in the "Group of Death" when, backed against the wall and needing to beat Nigeria to take first place in the group, Ellis put order back into the U.S. lineup.
Morgan had not started for the United States since March 4 at the Algarve Cup, missing three games in Portugal as the U.S. went on to win their 10th Algarve Cup trophy, and missing all four U.S. friendlies en route to the World Cup. Once the U.S. started their World Cup campaign, Morgan was limited to late-game cameos of 11 minutes or 12 minutes. But with the U.S. held to a scoreless draw against Sweden, and the team trainer giving Morgan clearance for a start, Ellis did not hesitate to push Morgan's start date up one game, since the original plan was for Morgan to be ready to go in the knockout rounds.
Morgan's reappearance in the starting lineup did not unleash a torrent of goals for the U.S., which settled for a 1-0 win over Nigeria by bunkering down with defense late in the game to preserve safe passage to Edmonton, where the U.S. will likely meet Colombia or England on June 22. But Morgan's presence with Wambach gives the U.S. team their best attacking tandem not just on this team, but of all time.
"They were a little bit rusty but they definitely look for each other,'' said Tony DiCicco, the former U.S. coach who now does commentary for FOX Sports. "When [the ball's] served into Abby, Alex looks to flick passes. She's the total package. She has the speed, the drive, she reads the game pretty well and she's very competitive so when she's fighting for the ball she will win more than her fair share. She has a couple of good looks at the goal which is more than you can say for our other strikers,'' he said.
Wambach has 183 goals, the most ever by any soccer player, and that includes 14 in Women's World Cup action. Morgan, meanwhile, has 51 goals and 32 assists in 85 international appearances. Earlier this year, in a win over England, Morgan became the third-fastest American woman to reach the 50-goal milestone behind Michelle Akers and Wambach. Morgan was within inches of having career goal No. 52 on Tuesday at B.C. Place in front of 52,000-plus fans that included about 30 or 40 of Morgan's friends and family. If not for the point-blank save by Nigerian goalkeeper Precious Dede in the 62nd minute, Morgan would have had her first goal of the 2015 World Cup, too.
That play was a tantalizing reminder that the U.S. had been missing a very key component of its attack, given the purposeful way Morgan picked up a lead pass from Ali Krieger and drove in all alone for what looked like a sure goal.
"I really thought I was going to finish that one, the last couple of minutes I was in," Morgan said afterward. "The Nigerian keeper came over and made a really good save, actually. Obviously, I would like to score, but at the end of the day we won and I got a good  minutes and I'm looking forward to the next game."
It is difficult to assess exactly what Morgan brings to the field in addition to her incredible speed and strength. She's not flashy like Megan Rapinoe and she's not going to try and work the ball like Press. Nor does she park herself at the goalmouth like Wambach. But there is something exceedingly deliberate and straightforward about the runs she makes and the lanes she eats up as she works towards the goal. And in those runs, she is often seen flicking a back heel to Carli Lloyd or Lauren Holiday or heading little loopers into Wambach. She facilitates plays as much as she tries to finish -- an aspect that may help the midfield going forward.
"[Morgan] created a lot of good runs. I think what we've been missing in these games is we've needed forwards to check back so we can play off of them and them be a bouncing board. I think Abby and Alex did that really well this game. Alex also made runs in behind that backline. That's important. We can't lose that,'' Lloyd said.
The attack for the U.S. needed stability, and it seems to now have it with Morgan back. The midfield, which has struggled to find ways of using the natural attacking styles of Lloyd and Holiday, was lost without a forward able to check back with them.
Now the U.S. moves on after a brutal round of group action against three tough opponents in Australia, Sweden and Nigeria. The U.S. is still looking to find a presence and delivery that doesn't necessitate a stellar defense to save game after game. But the good news is that order has been restored at the top. As long as Wambach is the focal point of the U.S. attack, there is no better running mate for her than Morgan.