Raising The Bar For Women's Soccer
By Brian Price
Alex Morgan, starting forward for the Western New York Flash, dribbled the ball up the field and got caught in a corner between two defenders during her team's final practice before the WPS Championship. With a motion quick as lightning, she swept her right leg, connected with the ball and launched it like a cannon ball, across the box for what would have been a perfect set-up had any of her teammates cut to the goal. But nobody did. They didn't think a player in that position could deliver such a perfect set-up.
That's Alex Morgan.
On the worldwide stage Morgan, at 22, was the youngest player on the women's 2011 World Cup roster; she was mainly used as a substitute off the bench. However, in the second half of a historic World Cup finals match against Japan, the "sparkplug" came into the second half and scored the first goal of the match to break a 0-0 tie.
The world of soccer would be hard-pressed to find a bench player who burst onto the international scene more explosively.
It was around this time that fans started taking notice, not just of women's soccer, but of Morgan's one-woman play-making abilities. Since the World Cup, Morgan has become a household name (having gained 150,000 followers on Twitter virtually overnight), an idea that the Diamond Bar, Calif., native still seems to be getting used to.
"Am I a household name?" Morgan asks in amazement. "Overall I think it's great for the game, but for me, personally, it's different. I am definitely still adjusting to it, but if I can get recognized on the street and help promote the women's game, the development of youth soccer and the WPS, then I'm all for it."
2011 was a big year for Morgan. In addition to competing in the World Cup, she was drafted first overall in the Women's Professional Soccer draft by the Flash and eventually helped lead her club team to the league championship back in August.
Morgan came to Cal as a freshman in 2007 and appreciates how the collegiate experience helped her to realize her life's passion.
"The player I was when I first arrived at Cal was an energetic, unknowing-of-the-future, excited to see what was in-store player," Morgan says without taking a breath. "Throughout the years at Cal I learned about my passion for soccer and that I wanted to continue playing after college, play on the national team in the World Cup and the Olympics and become a professional athlete."
As a freshman and then as a sophomore, Morgan led the Golden Bears in scoring with eight and nine goals, respectively. Overall, she finished her Cal career with 45 goals, third all-time in the program's history. A first-team All-American as a senior, she finished third overall in goals scored and would have exceeded that if she hadn't spent so much time playing internationally.
Morgan was highly motivated academically in order to graduate early and focus on her career as professional soccer player.
"My last semester at Cal, I was taking maybe sixteen or eighteen credits and I think that I missed half of the semester due to national team duties," explains Morgan, who still managed to score 13 goals as a senior. "[At a school like Cal] there were many professors who were willing to work with my schedule and were eager to help me out because they recognized my passion for the game. It was very difficult taking midterms and writing papers the day of national team games, but I did it and it was all worth it because I graduated."
As a member of the national team, Morgan got support and guidance from her national team counterparts, especially those with common Pac-12 ties.
Currently, the national team roster of 21 women is composed of eight Pac-12 players, more than any other conference, from Washington (Hope Solo), Stanford (Kelly O'Hara, Rachel Buehler and Nicole Barnhart), ASU (Amy Lepeilbet), USC (Amy Rodriguez) and UCLA (Lauren Cheney).
Despite having achieved so much, Morgan is still hungry to improve. She admits that despite the benefits of playing a variety of sports in her youth, starting soccer late at 14 makes her less technically effective than players who have had a ball at their feet since age five. She smiles and begins a laundry list when asked about other aspects of her game that she's still looking to enhance.
"My first touch, my passing accuracy, I'm always working on my shooting and finishing," Morgan pauses with a laugh. "I want to improve everything."
Right now she's prepping for her first Olympics: the 2012 London Games. In 1996, a US team led by fellow Golden Bear Brandi Chastain won Olympic gold. The US followed that up with gold medals in 2004 and 2008.
Morgan is adamant that in order for soccer to grow in America there needs to be support for women's professional leagues, and not just during Olympic and World Cup years. Morgan hopes there will be year-round play that offers fans a chance to see their favorite players on a regular basis.
"The World Cup and Olympics are only once every four years, so during those [intermittent] years we need to continue to raise the level of the women's national team and keep the WPS around," says Morgan. "The U.S. women's national team is always in the top-three in the world and we need a WPS here to support that success."
Expect a big boost for the 'beautiful game' in America when the Olympics begin July 25 in London. Cal (9-3-2) resumes play this Friday at Arizona. Don't forget to join the craze and follow Morgan on Twitter @AlexMorgan13 and read more about the WNY Flash.