Alex Morgan: The Finisher

Alex Morgan: The Finisher

By June 18, 2019 Issue 15, USWNT

Every team has a plan for taming the USWNT that translates roughly into “Don’t let Baby Horse get loose.” But inevitably, Alex Morgan does. She has spent the past decade punishing U.S. opponents in the penalty area, scoring goals that may not take the breath away but more often than not are game winners. There is the by now familiar tippy-toed gallop that eats up the ground (hence, the Baby Horse nickname), the flapping ponytail and signature pink headband that has become the go-to fashion statement for every young soccer-playing American girl, and the silky touch that allows her a fraction of a second to look up, pause, and bury the ball in the net.

88_15_Alex_1And oh yeah, the most marketable smile in U.S. soccer since the David Beckham Industrial Complex bid farewell to the LA Galaxy.

With her very first cap in 2010, Morgan became the poster girl of USWNT, thanks not only to her quick, lethal feet but also to her glossy-magazine-ready looks.

Morgan has carried the weight of being both the face of the national team and its dead-eye finisher with an easy grace for nearly a decade, but heading into what figures to be the most tautly contested of Women’s World Cups, the expectations placed on her have increased manifold. She no longer has the powerful and towering presence of her mentor—and the leading goal scorer in international history—Abby Wambach to free up space for her in the box. And then there’s this daunting statistic to consider: Morgan has scored in 70 games (and counting) for the USWNT and the team hasn’t lost any of them.

Of course, there’s the corollary: If Morgan doesn’t score, bad things tend to happen. Like, say, underwhelming draws with Japan and England at this year’s SheBelieves Cup.

“Honestly, that’s a real weird stat, and I wasn’t even aware of it until I scored against Spain [in late January],” Morgan said of her remarkable streak. “But I guess that means I have to keep scoring.”

88_15_Alex_2Some goals are considered special because of their significance, others because they encapsulate their scorer’s very essence. Morgan’s goal against Australia in early April combined both qualities. Not only was it a personal milestone—the 100th of her career—but it required the kind of fierce individual effort for which she is known. Latching onto a long pass from Crystal Dunn, Morgan outmuscled one Australian defender, then dropped a shoulder and accelerated past a second before arrowing the ball into the far corner. It was a goal worthy of admission into the exclusive Century Club, in which only seven American women reside. Two of them are Wambach and Lloyd, but with the former retired and the latter relegated to late-game cameos, Morgan is now the national team’s last shooting star—and its best chance to secure another ticker-tape parade in New York City’s Canyon of Heroes.

“I accept that pressure as the team’s No. 9,” she says, “but at the same time, I think we now have a number of players who are capable of stepping into the light, which is better than looking at one specific person like Abby to carry us. What if she gets injured or she’s not on her game? Then we’re in trouble. But this World Cup, we have six or seven players we can turn to.”

No other team in the tournament can even approach the depth of U.S. attacking talent, which starts with a front line of Morgan flanked by the ever creative Megan Rapinoe and the ever ebullient Tobin Heath. Behind them is a strong and vibrant midfield featuring the hyper-quick feet of Christian Press, the bulldozing physicality of Lindsey Horan, the soft-shoed playmaking of Rose Lavelle, the brilliant shithousery of Julie Ertz, and the thrilling, freewheeling runs of Mal Pugh.

Still, it’s Morgan who keeps opposing coaches awake at night, wondering how they can attach a GPS to monitor her elusive movements. Lose track of her in the box and the odds are that you’ll be watching the rest of the World Cup on TV.

88_15_Alex_3That was certainly the case in 2012, when Morgan wowed the world on two fronts—scoring a Hamm-worthy 28 goals and showing equal fearlessness posing in nothing but body paint for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Over the next several years, however, injuries and a loss of focus took their toll, perhaps most famously when she was red-carded from Disney’s Epcot Center for what the police deemed “highly impaired” behavior. The goals stopped flowing, and Morgan’s standing among the world’s A-list strikers began to slip. Fortunately for the U.S., she rediscovered her finishing mojo toward the end of 2017 with a scorching run of seven goals in seven games; last year she stretched it to 18 goals in 19 games. If the coltish Morgan is no longer running as wild and free as she did when she first broke into the USWNT and was christened Baby Horse by her teammates, she still possesses that rare gift shared by all great strikers: the ability to freeze time amid the chaos of the penalty area and nervelessly stick the ball in the back of the net.

“I think this past year I’ve rounded out the areas of my game I needed to work on while building on my strengths,” she says matter-of-factly. “I’ve made a conscious effort to be more proactive in the box whereas in the past I think I’ve been a little more reactive. With Abby gone, I’ve also had to get more comfortable playing as a target striker with my back to goal so can I can flick the ball to my teammates running off me. The other big adjustment has been mental. For me to be most effective, I’ve got to be completely dialed in, so I’ve been doing some meditation and visualization. It’s helped me be more hyper-focused.”

Morgan also happens to be fitter and stronger than ever, which manifests itself in her aggressive high-pressing and in the effortless manner she roasts a defender without breaking stride.

“I think I’ve just evolved as a player,” says the U.S. co-captain. “My game is about being in the right place at the right time, which is not a coincidence. It’s making sure you have an edge on your defender at all times and also always looking to get in behind.”

And like the U.S. grande dames Lloyd and Rapinoe, she doesn’t seem at all concerned with another stat she’s constantly being asked about. Morgan will turn 30 on July 2. “Oh, I’m over it,” she says, laughing. “I feel like I’ve been telling people I’m 30 already. But because my birthday comes during the World Cup, I’m sure it won’t go unnoticed.”

Then again, very little Alex Morgan does on the field (and off) ever could.

This article originally appeared in Issue 15 of Eight by Eight. As an independent magazine it’s your support that enables us to continue bringing you the stories from around the football world. We hope you’ll buy the issue and join us.
Photographs by Joe Pugliese

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