Is Morgan more than the next big thing?
Alex Morgan seems to have it all: an impeccable pedigree, a deadly left foot and cinema-ready good looks to boot. The youngest player on the 2011 Women’s World Cup roster, she has long been considered America’s next great striker.
There’s only one catch. When the Olympic qualifiers start Friday for the Americans in Vancouver, she’s likely to be on the bench.
Morgan’s case is curious: She’s scored 10 goals in her 26 appearances for the national team and gave the Americans critical goals in the semifinal and final matches at this year’s Women’s World Cup. Six of her goals have come in or after the 88th minute, arguably making her the Tim Tebow of the side. (She’s the better passer.)
That harrying energy made her last year’s top draft pick in WPS, and while her production for the championship Western New York Flash — four goals in 14 games — wasn’t eye-popping, it’s clear that Morgan is a vital player. One of those goals, a sublime back heel against the Boston Breakers to grab a 2-2 draw last July, is as good a strike as any you’ll see.
Yet US women’s coach Pia Sundhage seems disinclined to start the wunderkind, relying instead on veteran Abby Wambach with Amy Rodriguez behind her in the team’s new 4-2-3-1 formation. And the question now is: Did everything happen too fast for the 22-year-old from Diamond Bar, Calif?
Morgan’s case is intriguing, especially since she has clearly caught the eye of women’s soccer’s small but passionate fan base. She made a number of year-end “best” lists for her World Cup heroics; she has been recruited as a pitchwoman and point person for several outlets and retailers, and the number of fan blogs that rhapsodize over her is a bit dizzying. Some of the blogs border on the obsessive, but there’s no denying that many fans feel Morgan is the tonic for the Americans’ documented scoring woes.
Nonetheless, Morgan is “odd woman out” on a team that prizes her energy and badly needs her late-game heroics off the bench — but cannot find a way to use her for the full 90 minutes on a team still in transition.
Sundhage is trying to turn what has historically been a reactive team that overwhelmed opponents with speed, muscularity and stamina into a team that can play possession soccer. The coach’s instincts are correct: The rest of the world is catching up to the Americans in terms of raw talent, and some nations have certainly exceeded them in soccer smarts and skills.
Sundhage’s answer — clogging the midfield in a formation that will be most familiar to Manchester United fans as their “European formation” — also means that Morgan won’t be the front-runner; instead the invaluable Wambach will be the target at the top of the trident, and Morgan’s speed will be saved for late in the game. Tactically, this is certainly sound. But it also indicates that Sundhage doesn’t feel Morgan has come far enough in her control and game-play. If Sundhage did, Morgan would likely replace Rodriguez as one of the runners behind Wambach in the withdrawn three.
Another part of the problem is that the attention Morgan has received has been smothering. Morgan, after all, has three sets of expectations on her shoulders: She has to perform for the national team, which in turn is bearing the load of WPS — the struggling pro league that has staked nearly everything on an Olympic triumph. Then you must add the demands of the fans and media, who see her as a potential and marketable star.
This has long been the curse of moderate success in American soccer. Like it or not, the US loves stars, and soccer continues to search for the next Mia Hamm, and its first Lionel Messi. That has resulted in a legacy of players moved along far too fast for their own good — Freddy Adu is the unfortunate standard-bearer for this phenomenon. But others have seen their careers take hits under the pressure. Heather Mitts, Tiffany Roberts and even the venerable Shannon MacMillan sometimes struggled with the spotlight.
Sundhage may be doing the smart thing by applying some brakes to a player who has already been fawned over so publicly. She also seems mindful of the fact that, to date, Morgan’s goals have come from her raw talent, not any polish. And finally, the fact remains that with the rest of the world improving dramatically it is becoming easier for nations such as France and Japan to isolate a speedster like Morgan and remove her from the game.
The next question will be whether Morgan can continue to develop and become more than just a goal-bound slasher. If she can, she’s likely to become a valued player into the future. If she cannot, she may well become another one of American soccer's “next big thing(s).”