Can Alex Morgan crack the starting XI?
As U.S. international forward Alex Morgan settles into a chair in the hotel lobby, there is nothing about her that screams "predatory striker." Her hair is pulled back, her sweatshirt plain. There's no hint of cockiness, no trace of the "me-first" attitude so common with most goal scorers. In fact, Morgan almost comes across as shy.
Is this really the player who is being touted as the Next Big Thing in women's soccer, the one with the movie star looks and the eye-catching Twitter avatar? Indeed, yes. The only question is: With Olympic qualifying set to begin Friday against the Dominican Republic, will circumstances -- and tactics -- allow Morgan to be the next poster girl for U.S. soccer?
At this past summer's World Cup, Morgan got off to a great start. She was an absolute game-changer off the bench for the U.S., using her speed and laser-guided finishing to affect games. Her goal in the semifinal win over France helped ice the contest, and her tally in the final against Japan might well have been the game winner on another day.
Yet even as the U.S. ultimately fell on penalties, the world started to take notice of Morgan, on and off the field. Endorsement deals from the likes of Nike, Coca-Cola, Panasonic and GNC have begun to come her way, and she finds herself being recognized in public more often.
Morgan, 22, admits that the increased awareness has taken some getting used to. Although her on-field persona is pure energy, off the field she's more Mia Hamm than Abby Wambach, in that she's not completely comfortable in the limelight. Although she is amenable to discussing any topic, she says she's nervous when asked to speak in front of large groups of people.
"It's interesting; when you're on the field, you're focused on one thing, you're doing your job, so you're not thinking of the thousands of people that have their eyes on you," Morgan said. "But when you're expected to speak or get up and know everyone is watching you, and listening to what you have to say, that's when I get nervous.
"I try not to let the attention affect me. You need to go back to basics and realize that you're here to do a job, and you're here to play soccer and make that a priority every day. You can't let the whirlwind take you with it."
Yet dealing with the increased recognition has proved to be easier than cracking the U.S. lineup. In her 26 national team appearances, Morgan has scored 10 times but started just twice. Even before the World Cup, there were calls for U.S. manager Pia Sundhage to include Morgan in the first XI alongside Wambach. Sundhage ultimately decided to keep using Morgan off the bench, but that seemed to be delaying the inevitable. The striker's time would come. And although the quick turnaround between the World Cup and the Olympics doesn't allow for a quantum leap in a player's game, Morgan feels as if she's ready for her role to evolve.
"In the beginning, I was really thankful because I had just come on to this team and was thankful enough to be given this opportunity to play and come off the bench, be that player who was able to make an impact and run at defenders who were tired in the last 10 minutes," Morgan said. "Definitely now, competing every day with these players, I've seen improvement in my game, and I think that I'm ready to take the next steps. I'm just waiting to go."
At issue is Sundhage's desire to have a more varied attack, one that has seen her play with a lone striker in what she is calling a 4-2-3-1 formation. There is no arguing Wambach's importance to the squad. If she can so much as walk, she'll be in the lineup. With Lauren Cheney tipped for the attacking midfield role behind Wambach, Morgan is left to compete for one of the outside flank positions, where the likes of Heather O'Reilly, Amy Rodriguez and Megan Rapinoe provide stiff competition. At present, O'Reilly and Rodriguez appear to be the preferred options.
Sundhage acknowledges that she'll employ a 4-4-2 from time to time in a bid to get Morgan some minutes, but she also indicates that the attacker's game is far from complete, especially as it relates to her movement off the ball.
Becky Sauerbrunn's role for U.S.
Alex Morgan isn't the only player struggling to break into a potent lineup. This past summer, defender Becky Sauerbrunn proved to be an able deputy, filling in for suspended Rachel Buehler in the semifinal win against France and delivering a composed performance.
So, is there any chance for Sauerbrunn to find a starting spot along the back line? Not likely. Manager Pia Sundhage is looking at other options for the outside back positions and intends to stick with her preferred center back pairing of Christie Rampone and Buehler.
"One of my soccer philosophies is about creating a relationship with the center backs," Sundhage said. "As of now, Buehler and Rampone, when they work together, it makes everybody around them comfortable. If you take out just one of them, then Sauerbrunn and Rampone, for example, would need a lot of games before it would be as good as Buehler and Rampone. So even if, say, Buehler isn't well, or has a bad practice or a bad game, we will stick with those two for a while."
That leaves Sauerbrunn once again in a backup role.
"You just have to accept your role and appreciate it," Sauerbrunn said. "But there's still a part of me that very much wants to be a starter for this team. It's very hard, but I keep myself ready." -- JC
"When she's coming off the bench, what we tell her pretty much is, 'You know what? Turn and just get past the back line, find the bending runs,'" Sundhage said. "You can't do that for 90 minutes. You have to be more sophisticated than that. But if you play 20 minutes, you can do that. Morgan understands that that role is very limited, and the team understands that, as well. She's a young player, and it will take a while for her to understand how to read off of a player."
Sundhage added that, during Olympic qualifying, teams likely will bunker in against the U.S., taking away the space behind defenses that Morgan exploited so well at the World Cup. This puts more of an emphasis on combining with her teammates, which is something else Sundhage would like to see Morgan do more of.
"When you build up the attack just before you get near the box, Morgan is limited," Sundhage said. "It's almost like the game is looking for her more than she is just grabbing the game. So if she has good teammates around her, she has a chance, but I don't think it's the other way around; that she will, with her movement off the ball, be able to help her teammates if they struggle. Lauren Cheney, she brings players into the game. I don't think Alex is doing that right now."
Not everyone sees it that way. World Cup-winning coach and current ESPN television analyst Tony DiCicco coached Morgan when she was on the U.S. U-20 national team and saw her ability firsthand. Although he generally lauds the job Sundhage has done and understands her decision to switch formations, he feels as though Morgan should be given more opportunities, even if that means playing out wide.
"For some reason, Pia thinks that Alex can't play on the flank," DiCicco said. "I have video to show you that Alex is quite a dynamic flank player. She has this great quality that, when the ball is coming down the other side, she always finds herself in front of goal. She accelerates, and she never arrives late; she's always there because she's got this goal scorer's mentality. She's got a great engine; she can play defense; she's great as a one-versus-one-take-them-on kind of player. She would do fine."
For her part, Morgan accepts the fact that she needs to adapt her game to what Sundhage wants.
"I need to make myself a little more versatile," she said. "I'm trying to knock on that door a little bit more, and I'm trying to embrace the role that Pia has given me. Hopefully, in this next year, we'll see a little bit of a change in my role, but you never know. You just have to wait for the right time."
It's worth noting that Sundhage hasn't shut the door completely on Morgan, acknowledging that she expects the striker to be in the starting lineup "sooner rather than later." Yet it seems unlikely that will happen in time for this summer's Games in London.
Either way, Morgan is ready.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national teams for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.