Premium: Time to Take the Fifth?
As the USWNT clinches a berth in World Cup 2023, Alex Morgan says claims that Europe has passed the U.S. by are "ridiculous"
MONTERREY, Mexico — Alex Morgan has seen the lists. The most recent one from The Guardian ranking just three USWNT players in the global top 50 (and none in the top 19). And the new one from ESPN that has six U.S. players in the world top 50 but just one Yank in the top 10.
With a year to go before the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, for which the U.S. qualified on Thursday night, Morgan is well aware of the conventional wisdom in European soccer circles: that the U.S. has been surpassed by its European counterparts. That when you measure things player by player, the U.S. just doesn’t stack up anymore in 2022.
“I both understand it and think it’s completely ridiculous at the same time.” — Alex Morgan on the idea that European teams have overtaken the USWNT
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The soccer world this summer and next will be dominated by the women’s game. In the coming weeks, continental championships in Europe, the Americas and Africa will serve as a buzz-generating prelude to next year’s main event. And as the Euros bask in their crowds of 68,000-plus and make the case that the epicenter of women’s soccer is shifting across the Atlantic, Morgan would like to point her finger to the four World Cup title stars on the USWNT crest—and, not least, the ones representing the last two tournaments, in 2015 and 2019.
Those player rankings with so few Americans on them?
“I both understand it and think it’s completely ridiculous at the same time,” Morgan told me in a one-on-one interview this week. “I understand it in the fact that most of us live and play in the U.S. and don’t have Euros, don’t have Champions League. It’s ridiculous because again, we’re two-time reigning World Cup champs. We have some of the best talent in the world. Obviously, I’m going to give ourselves a great chance at adding another star. So I have a prediction that that will change, that number of six [U.S. players in ESPN’s top 50] will increase a little in the next year.”
Truth be told, the team that stopped the U.S.’s Olympic gold medal run last year wasn’t from Europe but rather Canada, which is on a collision course to meet the U.S. in the CONCACAF final, with the tournament’s lone automatic Olympic berth up for grabs to the winner.
Granted, Coach Vlatko Andonovski’s U.S. team is in the middle of a transition following last year’s disappointing Olympic bronze medal, with the retirement of Carli Lloyd and the absences of Crystal Dunn (pregnancy), Sam Mewis (injury) and Julie Ertz (both injury and pregnancy). Christen Press (ACL injury) and Tobin Heath (just returned to the NWSL with OL Reign from Arsenal) may not be selected for the national team even when they’re fully fit, and Megan Rapinoe (who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House on Thursday) is with the team but in a super-sub role.
In the ACL-related absence of superstar-in-waiting Catarina Macario, the 22-year-old center-forward who recently won the Champions League with Lyon, the most exciting players on the U.S. team lately are wingers Sophia Smith (21) and Mal Pugh (24).
For now, it’s a little hard to measure the U.S. based on its first two games in the current tournament. A 3-0 victory over Haiti—marked by two Morgan goals—was less comfortable than the scoreline indicated, but Haiti’s subsequent 3-0 win over a shell-shocked Mexico showed that the Haitians have more talent than ever. Easily the best story of the tournament, Haiti can qualify for its first women’s World Cup with a tie or better on Monday against Jamaica.
Thursday’s 5-0 U.S. win against Jamaica was over within eight minutes, which was all the time it took for the U.S. to go ahead 2-0 on goals by Smith (an emerging star who, it should be noted, is nowhere to be found on the ESPN or Guardian lists). Smith’s first goal, finished with a right-footed trivela, was so outrageous that even renowned skill player Rose Lavelle couldn’t help but marvel at it.
“That was sick, Soph,” Lavelle told her on the field right after it happened.
“That might be my first outside-of-the-foot goal,” Smith allowed afterward. “But I try to do it in practice. I practice it. I just never get in those situations, but I did tonight.”
“Soph is an incredible young player,” Andonovski said after the game. “To be a starter at 21 years old on the best team in the world isn’t easy. It comes with lots of weight. She wants to be the best every time she steps on the field. She’s a perfectionist, she wants to score one or two goals. Which is great, but sometimes it can be counterproductive. I don’t think the last game was her best game, and I did have a meeting with her and talked about that to reassure her.”
“Regardless of what this game or the next game will look like, she will be a starter for this team,” Andonovski added, “just because we know how good she is now, and we can see her potential and how good she can be in the future. She does have the potential to be one of the best players in the world.”
Morgan got the night off on Thursday, which allowed Ashley Hatch and Trinity Rodman to play in the No. 9 spot. But with Macario out injured, Morgan is clearly the first option again up top for the games that matter most. And she has earned that with a formidable run of form for San Diego in the NWSL (where her 11 goals lead the league) and now the national team.
When asked where her current form ranks in her career, Morgan pauses for a moment.
“I mean, that’s hard,” she tells me. “I’d have to say number one, just because I want to live in the present and hope that I’m in the best form of my career. I think there’s still room to get better because I hope I’m in the best form of my career during the World Cup next year. But I think there’s a couple moments that definitely stick out: 2012 Olympic year, getting the opportunity to start for the first time with the national team, and then 2017 playing in Lyon and then coming back and playing with Orlando and getting to the playoffs there. Those are a couple years that stick out. But I’m having a good time this year.”
Morgan’s two goals against Haiti stood out largely because they were different from the kind she used to score regularly in the early stages of her career. One goal was a well-taken near-post stab, and the other was a looping header taken while moving away from the goal. Morgan told me she has spent a lot of time the last year or two studying Chicharito Hernández and his movement to create space for himself in the penalty box.
“I definitely feel like I use the defender to manipulate her a lot more than I used to,” Morgan says. “Earlier in my career, I think I was a lot more linear. We played as more of a two-front earlier, and then over the course of the last few years, 2015 and ’19 in particular, I think that my game has definitely evolved. Not only my ability to get open in the box, but to create space for myself and not always feel like I have to rush into the box. But I have to be in the box at the right moment. And so that’s definitely a different mindset.”
So is the approach Morgan has had to take recently when she hasn’t been selected by Andonovski for the national team. She’s not the only U.S. veteran, of course, to find herself in that situation. But Morgan admits she struggled with it at first.
“Honestly, I think it was a process for me to look at myself in the mirror and stop blaming,” she says. “I think that’s what I wanted to do initially after having a disappointing Olympics and not quite the year that I wanted last year. And I think that’s when my mindset changed, is when I really started to actually just feel better, be happier and be more confident on the field.”
“And that took a while,” she continues. “I mean, that took until February or March to kind of stop thinking, how can I get back on the national team? Rather, how can I help San Diego to be the best expansion team that’s ever been in the NWSL, to make Casey [Stoney] and Jill [Ellis] proud for trading for me and seeing a leader in me and the player that I can be on San Diego? So I think it was just a shift of a mindset.”
Can Morgan and Macario play on the field at the same time once Macario returns from her injury? Andonovski has said he sees the No. 9 spot as Macario’s best position, which presents a conflict with Morgan, but he has also used Macario in different places on the field.
“I don't know,” Morgan says about the possibility. “We have played together, because she has played in the 10 position back in September–October last year. And she’s great turning in that pocket, and she gives something different than a player like Rose or a player like Lindsey [Horan]. But obviously, she can play in the nine as well. And it’s extremely disappointing to see her injury after such an incredible year that she had after coming out from Stanford and just being so successful. So obviously, I think that she comes back as soon as she possibly can healthwise and gets back on this team. And I’m sure that at the end of the day, Vlatko is going to want to put the best players on the field. And so I’ll just continue to make a case for myself in that regard.”
Just don’t look for Morgan, who turned 33 last week, to stick around until her late 30s like Lloyd did. When I ask her whether her 117 international goals means she’ll try to break Abby Wambach’s U.S. record (184) or Christine Sinclair’s world mark (189 and counting), she shakes her head instantly.
“Abby always said that I would smash her record of goals scored, and I didn’t believe her then and I won’t believe her now,” Morgan says. “I am not one of the players that will continue to be playing at 38, 39, 40 years old. My body has been through a lot. I think I continue to take a lot of tackles every game, and I’m just happy to continue to be playing every day and scoring goals. So I just continue to look for one more. But will I get over 180? Doubtful, extremely doubtful.”
She does have one long-term eye on the sport, however. For the past year, Morgan has been part of the FIFA committee chaired by Jill Ellis on the future of the women’s game. The members have regular meetings, and Morgan has been an active member on the calls.
“Something that we’ve been really focused on is how to increase the competition and kind of force a lot of federations to increase match play for their respective women’s teams, and how for that not to always continue to be the same teams,” she says. “Like for CONCACAF, for us not to always be playing against only other CONCACAF teams for major tournaments. But another thing is, what would be best for women’s football moving forward? A World Cup every four years, or a biennial World Cup? And there’s been a lot of amazing discussion around it and a lot of different perspectives as there’s a lot of former and current players, referees, coaches from all different federations and confederations.”
She continues: “So it’s interesting to hear everyone’s viewpoints, and I think overall, it’s just how can we continue to increase the accessibility of women’s football and increase the quality of play as well and the number of matches for each team. Because we’re not worried about the U.S. playing 15 to 20 matches a year. We’re going to maximize our windows. But it’s getting Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago and a lot of these other countries to maximize those match windows.”
At a time when athletes past and present have more influence than ever in U.S. Soccer, Morgan’s role in FIFA is not an inconsequential one. But she still wants to be as relevant as ever on the field, and she’ll get a chance to do that in this tournament. After all, if you’re going to speak publicly about putting fifth stars over the USWNT crest and staving off the European charge, it helps to be putting balls in the net.