Alex Morgan set fire to 2012. The 23-year-old won gold with the U.S. women's team at the London Olympics and became just the second player in U.S. history to reach 20 goals and 20 assists in a year.
When I caught up with Morgan on the phone, she was preparing to leave for the FIFA Ballon d'Or ceremony in Zurich, where she's shortlisted for the prestigious Women's Footballer of the Year award alongside her U.S. teammate Abby Wambach and Brazil's Marta.
WILL TIDEY: Hi, Alex! Thanks for taking the time to talk and Happy New Year to you. Looking back on 2012, you must take enormous pleasure and pride in what you and the U.S. team achieved.
ALEX MORGAN: 2012 was the best-case scenario I could have dreamt. Everyone on the U.S. team played so well, and everyone stepped up. Moving forward, it's about taking confidence from our success. It's about never being complacent and always improving—always knowing that we can get better.
WT: The U.S. run to gold will be remembered most for the dramatic semifinal win against Canada. How much do you recall of the buildup to your winning goal? And just how special was it to experience a moment like that at a place like Old Trafford?
AM: I remember every goal I've scored! That game was such a roller-coaster of emotion. It was the most dramatic game I've ever played in. But I never once thought about penalty kicks; I never once thought, "This is going to end in a tie."
In situations like that, the belief in the team starts with the older players and gets passed on. I remember the goal so clearly. It was so special to play and score a late goal at Old Trafford.
WT: The U.S. team went to London expected to win gold. How did you manage to stay focused and not let the weight of expectancy get on top of you?
AM: We apply our own pressure to ourselves. We know that we're No.1 in the rankings and we don't want to settle for anything less. We're very open and sometimes very blunt with each other. We stay on top of each other.
WT: But you still managed to have some fun, judging by the "Party in the USA" routine you guys put together while you were in the UK, at least.
AM: People always say you're so busy at the Olympics, but we needed to rest and that's when we did that video. It was a great thing to be able to do well at the tournament and still have fun. We did other stuff for fun too, like getting together to watch our favorite TV shows. We had a huge stack of DVDs to work through.
WT: Have you been surprised at the amount of media attention you've received since winning gold? We might call you the highest-profile female athlete in America right now. How do you deal with the demands on your time and the distractions that come with being famous?
AM: I've always wanted to become a professional soccer player. With that comes responsibility and demands on your time. Next year we might not get as many fans at our games, so you have to take advantage of the good times and enjoy them. After the Olympics, it did get a bit stressed out at times, but in the end it's all good fun.
WT: Do you resent the media outlets who focus on your sex appeal rather than your soccer ability? I make particular reference to the shot of you paddle-boarding in a bikini that went viral recently.
AM: I'm a footballer. People are going to have their opinions and portray me how they like, but I can't deny I was a little surprised seeing the paparazzi come out of the rock by the water. If that attracts people to our game, great, but that's not what we're going for.
There are always female athletes highlighted for their sex appeal—that comes with any other female team. I have done Sports Illustrated, but I don't regret it because it portrayed me in a positive way—as an athlete. Skinny is not the way to go.
WT: Your feat of reaching 20 goals and 20 assists for 2012 [Morgan finished with 28 and 21] has only been achieved once before for the U.S. team, by the great Mia Hamm. Do you keep track of these things?
AM: Honestly, with stats and things like that, I try not to think about them. I just find that the more you think about goals and assists—what you need to do and accomplish—the more you tend to fall short. When you hope for something and you want something, it comes to you. Although I know my stats well, they're never at the forefront of my mind.
WT: How much of an influence has your strike partner and fellow Ballon d'Or nominee Abby Wambach been on your career so far? is it hard to imagine life in the U.S team without her?
AM: I've looked up to Abby for so many years. I still do, I see her as such a big inspiration. I grew up on this team trying to accomplish my dream and she's been there all along for me. On and off the field, the way she speaks and what she speaks about—she's such an example to me. I'm really glad she's continuing for another shot at the World Cup.
WT: Moving on to domestic matters, what are your thoughts on the new women's league (NWSL) set to launch in the U.S.? It seems unthinkable an elite league could start without you being a part of it. Is an announcement imminent?
AM: As of right now, I want to commit to the league, but I want to make sure everything is in place. I want to make sure it's top-class. We're hoping and fighting for that. If it all lines up the right way, I want to support the sport and grow that passion in those little girls and get them playing.
WT: Have you had a chance to meet new U.S. coach Tom Sermanni yet?
AM: I met him when he came to the last couple of games on our tour. He stood back and let us enjoy them. It was really cool to see him, and I'm looking forward to seeing what he does with the team.
WT: I know it's early, but you must already be looking toward World Cup 2015 in Canada. What do you think you can do to improve your game between now and then to give the U.S. the best possible chance of glory?
AM: I think I can improve in all parts of my game. I look at how close Lionel Messi keeps the ball when he's dribbling and how clinical he is. I've never been one to keep the ball and be a real technical player in the middle of the field. I want to focus on improving technically—being able to turn a player, lay off a ball first-time.
WT: Thank you so much for your time, Alex. Have fun in Zurich and we hope to talk to you again later in the year.
AM: Thanks, good to talk to you. Goodbye!
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