There has been no shortage of inspirational story lines stemming from Team USA's run to the finale of the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup against Japan on Sunday in Frankfurt, Germany. Not the least of which is the meteoric rise of 22-year-old Alex Morgan to international soccer stardom.
The 5'7" forward scored her first career World Cup goal in the 82nd minute of American's 3-1 semifinal victory over France. Morgan hit a lofted ball over the outstretched arms of French keeper Berangere Sapowicz, thereby sealing a berth in the tournament final and asserting Morgan as the future face of women's soccer in the states. That goal was also the eighth of her international career in 23 matches, and her fifth to come after the 80th minute.
Now, Morgan, who has been a key reserve off the bench for coach Pia Sundhage, will play a pivotal role in bringing the Cup trophy back to the US for the third time overall. It would be the first championship for the U.S. since the "Dream Team," led by Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy, captured the title and the imagination of millions with a thrilling victory over China in Pasadena, California in July of 1999.
Among those millions of inspired fans, of course, was Morgan, who was only 10 years old at the time. She had always been deep into sports, participating in softball, volleyball, basketball and track and field as a child. Soccer didn't take center stage in her athletic life until that magical run by Team USA 12 years ago. As she told ESPN:
"The 'Fab Five' and Mia Hamm and all them—I really looked up to them and watched them a lot," she says. "After that, I started looking into soccer more, because this was still when I was playing all those different sports, but I was following soccer especially. But then I went to Mia Hamm and Joy Fawcett and Julie Foudy's retirement game [at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California] in '04, and that's when I really started to focus on soccer."
As such, Morgan's journey to the top of women's soccer has been unusual, to say the least. While most stars of Alex's caliber begin intensive training long before they reach their teenage years, she didn't get serious about soccer until she was 14. It was then that she finally set softball aside and transferred her considerable gifts from the diamond to the pitch.
Morgan's stardom first began to take shape when she took up traveling club soccer with Cypress Elite in Orange County. This later opened up the door for her to continue her development during her collegiate years at Cal. At Cal she was the Golden Bears' leading scorer during each of her four years in Berkeley and finished as the third-leading goal scorer in school history with 45 goals. With a tremendous collegiate career behind her, Morgan became the No. 1 overall pick of the Western New York Flash in the 2011 Women's Professional Soccer Draft.
Her biggest break, though, came in 2008, when Morgan was invited to train with the U.S. under-20 women's national team. At which point she was on the fast track to the big time with Team USA. The following year, in December of 2009, Morgan got the call to join the senior team and made her debut with the team just a few months later, subbing in for Amy Rodriguez in the second half of a 1-0 victory over Mexico in late March of 2010.
Morgan didn't really become an integral part of the team until last fall, when she scored three goals. She scored two goals in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament and later notched a goal in the 94th minute of a crucial match against Italy to reach the Cup.
In the matter of less than two years, since then, Morgan has gone from a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed newcomer, to Team USA's most trusted closer, earning the respect and admiration of her more veteran teammates along the way.
Abby Wambach, the much-celebrated forward who's garnered acclaim for her headers during this tournament, had plenty of praise for the young phenom:
"Alex has come on and really been like a sponge. I see a lot of myself in her, in the way I related with Mia [Hamm when Morgan was the U.S.'s young forward]. It will be an exciting couple years for her to see how she's gone, but she totally deserves all the things that are coming to her."
Mind you, Wambach has 12 career goals in World Cup play, tying her for the all-time lead in Team USA's history.
Likewise, Sundhage, who has overseen Morgan's development and integration as a member of the top women's soccer team in the world, expressed plenty of optimism about Morgan's prospects for the future:
"She is fast, she is open-minded and her finishing is pretty good. So coming off the bench and just doing the roles and following the tactical things we want her to do, she's done great for that. She improves her game every time she comes in...gets more comfortable to be with the big girls, so to speak. And she brings out the best performances from the other ones up top [at forward]."
And, of course, Alex has made her father, Mike Morgan, a pretty proud dad along the way, particularly with her stellar play in the clutch:
"What's propelled her is every time she's gotten an opportunity, she's come through. Every time. There's not a lot of difference [among really talented players], it's when they get into situations and have the opportunity to perform, that's when you have to do it. It doesn't matter how good you are. Sometimes you only get a shot or two."
Judging by the way Morgan has played thus far on the biggest stage in women's soccer, a shot or two is all she'll need to make a difference for the American's against a feisty Japanese team on Sunday.