Morgan wasting no time making mark
Get Alex Morgan near the goal, and good things tend to happen.
Her career with the U.S. women all of seven games old, Morgan has scored arguably the two biggest goals since the Americans won the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics. Her timing couldn't be better, either, with the Americans scrambling to avoid missing the World Cup for the first time.
A month after preserving a six-year unbeaten streak on home soil with a late goal against China, Morgan scored in the final minute Saturday to put the Americans within reach of next summer's World Cup.
"She just is an aggressive kind of player," teammate Abby Wambach said Monday. "She moves her body into positions that give her chances to score goals. She's really created a lot of those opportunities that she's gotten and the goals that she's scored."
Stunned by Mexico in the semifinals of regional qualifying, the top-ranked Americans must beat Italy in a home-and-home, aggregate goal playoff to get to the World Cup, a tournament they've won twice.
Following its 1-0 win in Padova, Italy, the U.S. would advance with a win or a draw in Saturday's second leg at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill. A 1-0 Italy win would force overtime and, possibly, penalty kicks, and an Italy win in which the Azzurre score at least two goals would eliminate the Americans.
"Women's soccer is so much stronger and bigger in the world right now that you can't take anything for granted," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. "Hopefully, we'll look back when we go to Germany and when we're playing well and say, 'You know what? Those two games, we got stronger. That was actually good for us."'
The Americans have been the heavyweight in women's soccer for two decades now, winning the 1991 and '99 World Cups and all but one Olympic gold medal since the sport made its debut in 1996.
The Americans were blessed in the '90s to have a team that doubled as a Who's Who in women's soccer with Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Joy Fawcett and Cindy Parlow. While the rest of the world has begun to close the gap on the Americans, it's the millions of little girls Hamm, Foudy and Co. inspired that have kept the U.S. playing at a high level. There's always someone pushing her way up the ranks, with the 21-year-old Morgan the latest in the bunch.
"With a lot of help from my teammates, it's been a good transition," said Morgan, the only college player Sundhage picked for the World Cup qualifying roster. "But it definitely wasn't easy."
She's sure made it look that way.
Morgan scored the game-winner two years ago when the U.S. beat defending champion North Korea to win the Under-20 World Cup. She was Cal's leading scorer the last three seasons, her speed and athletic ability making her the focus of every opponent.
"We kind of tease her, because she either runs like a deer people think or like a horse," Wambach said. "She just is a straight up athlete."
But the sidelines are filled with outstanding athletes whose games didn't translate to the next level or who were pushed too far, too fast.
Because the Americans still have players like Wambach and Amy Rodriguez, Sundhage can bring Morgan along slowly. She's used Morgan as a late-game substitute, giving her very specific responsibilities and targets.
"The only thing we said to her before she entered the game is, 'Get the ball, turn and go straight to goal.' ... You can't say that for 45 minutes," Sundhage said. "That's why you limit her options a little bit and simplify the game for her, and she's done perfectly well with it."
She's also developed a nice rapport with Wambach, one of the world's most dangerous forwards and Morgan's idol growing up. Morgan's goals against Italy and China were both set up by Wambach, who flicked the ball to Morgan and let the youngster do what she does best.
"It's interesting because we have, I think, developed a connection with very limited time. It's something you can't really teach," Wambach said. "Once she starts moving, I know exactly where she's going to try and get to because she's so dynamically fast."
Wambach also has made Morgan's transition off the field a little easier.
Morgan admits she was "a little bit intimidated" the first time she was invited to a national team training camp, but the gregarious Wambach helped put her at ease. Morgan now counts Wambach as her closest friend on the team, and the two were roommates during CONCACAF qualifying in Cancun, Mexico.
While making new players feel welcome and included is essential to team harmony, Wambach also remembers what it was like to be where Morgan is. Wambach played alongside Hamm when she first started with the national team. As daunting as that was, it also gave Wambach the freedom to be a little daring.
"I remember (thinking), 'She's got all the pressure on her, I can just go out there and play as hard as I can,"' Wambach said. "By that virtue, you're going to score a lot of goals because you can play without fear. I think that's what (Morgan's) been doing in the opportunities she's gotten."