Why the USWNT without Alex Morgan was an absurd idea

Sometime in 2010, Heather O’Reilly and Abby Wambach were standing behind the goal during a U.S. women’s national team five-a-side tournament, watching the new addition to the team, 21-year-old Alex Morgan. The kid was still in college; they’d heard about her before she arrived, the youth national team sensation with lightning speed and the ability to score.

Standing there, perhaps with folded arms, maybe a finger to their chins, heads cocked toward one another, O’Reilly and Wambach studied Morgan, going back and forth, trying to find words to describe what they were seeing:

“She’s lively. Raw. Limbs in all directions.”

“Like a newborn animal.”

“Like, say, a baby horse.”

That’s the moment Alex Morgan was christened “Baby Horse.”

“She doesn’t love the nickname, but she’s a trooper about it — she knows it’s said with affection,” O’Reilly said. Any hint of gangly foal is long gone, anyway. No player in the world has a more iconic stride: powerful, graceful and, yes, gazelle-like. She bursts forward, long ponytail whipping behind her.

But speed alone won’t make you a global superstar. Since the very beginning, Morgan has scored major goals in major moments. She’s been on just about every magazine cover you can name and amassed 9.5 million Instagram followers. She’s won nearly everything there is to win.

And maybe that success is due to one perhaps under-noted quality: Alex Morgan is brave. She’s a seeker, someone with both the hunger to get better and the nerve it takes to put herself in the middle of new, unfamiliar environments — whether that means going to Lyon to fight for a starting spot against the world’s best, or bringing her 5-month-old baby to a different continent during COVID, to play for Tottenham, a team dreaming of more.

Every year she’s added to her game a new layer of sophistication, creativity, understanding and verve. Yet, for the past eight months, the global superstar was left off the U.S. roster. For someone who has been on the national team since she was in college — for a little over a decade — this was the first time she found herself on the outside looking in.

Morgan only recently found her way back to the U.S. team — she is now at the CONCACAF W Championship, the double-qualification tournament for the 2023 World Cup and 2024 Olympics, and she scored a brace in her first qualifier back in the squad, putting the U.S. on an easy path to later qualify for the World Cup. But for months, the talk around the U.S. included the notion that maybe Morgan’s time with the team was done. Maybe the team had moved on without her.

That could be the beginning of Alex Morgan’s most interesting chapter of all.

First, let’s rewind to July 25, 2012 in London: Morgan’s first Olympics. Her roommate was Heather O’Reilly. “Heather was one of the first players to take me under her wing,” Morgan said. “She’s just such a good person, a good teammate, a good leader — and she was someone that I would follow and just do as she did — just think as Heather does.”

Even though it was O’Reilly’s third Olympics, she was still the type to get excited about the opening ceremony. “Maybe that’s why I was often put with the rookies — because I’m a veteran who still has childish energy for stuff like that,” she said.

The team didn’t get to attend because their first game was in a different city, but Morgan and O’Reilly put the ceremony on the TV, turned up the volume and made their own parade. They put on their Ralph Lauren outfits — berets, navy blue blazers, neck scarf, skirts — and strutted through the hotel hallways with their teammates, taking pictures, doffing their berets. This is the Olympics, the thing you’ve dreamed about since you were kid.

“It’s important to make it fun,” O’Reilly told me in a phone call as she simultaneously had a kick-around with her toddler. “You can’t take yourself so seriously — people get tight, too sucked into this world that’s not even reality.”

O’Reilly tried to describe the longstanding USA mentality: “It’s like, first thing’s first, get our s— done on the field, but you’re not going to get your s— done unless you’re having fun, and you’re not going to have fun if you don’t get your s— done.”

“Mostly, you find out that winning is fun,” O’Reilly added. “None of those other shenanigans will be as meaningful if you’re not winning.”

In the tournament opener, Morgan came off the bench to score two goals and lead the U.S. to a come-from-behind victory against France. Then, in what is perhaps the most epic game in Olympic history, the semifinal against Canada, Morgan scored the game-winner in the 123rd minute of overtime — the latest goal in Olympics history for a 4-3 finish. The U.S. went on to win Olympic gold.

That Olympics feels startlingly different from the most recent one, 2021’s delayed event in Tokyo. Because of COVID, there were no opening ceremonies. International fans were banned. Morgan wasn’t allowed to bring her baby daughter. The U.S. played poorly in front of empty stadiums.

Maybe that first 2012 Olympics is in the back of Morgan’s mind when she reflects on the 2021 Olympics. “It wasn’t the Olympics any of us had hoped for — just not really creating a fun environment — or an environment that I necessarily even felt like I was bringing my best self to,” Morgan said. The U.S. lost their opening match to Sweden, 3-nothing. Morgan got injured and played only a few minutes in the bronze medal game — a disappointing finish for a player and a team accustomed to being at the top of the world.

That’s when the questions started. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski had recalled 17 of the players from the 2019 World Cup champion team for Tokyo — maybe he’d stuck with the veterans for too long? Come the 2023 World Cup, he will need to turn to the next generation. For the next few national team camps, Andonovski focused on giving the younger players their time. He also made it explicitly clear that no one’s spot is guaranteed — just because you played well two years ago doesn’t meant you’re coming in today, he said. You’ve got to show that you are performing right now.

So, for the next string of national camps — in October, November, January and February 2022 — Alex Morgan was not called in. In April, ahead of yet another national team camp, Morgan was at home with family when she got Andonovski’s call. She stepped into her bedroom, and he told her she’s not coming to camp.

This one took her by surprise.

“It was a hard discussion,” Morgan said. “But one of the things I really respect about Vlatko is just his honesty — having those hard conversations is not easy for anybody. I was disappointed, but at the same time, it wasn’t about pointing fingers, it was just: OK, if my name’s not on the roster, now I need to make sure it’s going to be the next time.”

She started the 2022 National Women’s Soccer League season for her new club, San Diego Wave FC, playing with something to prove. But, she clarified: “It’s not a bitter, I’ll-show-you sort of response. I can’t have in the back of the mind that I’m playing to get myself back on the national team. I’m playing to prove Jill [Ellis, Wave president] and Casey [Stoney, Wave coach] right in why they traded me and why I’m here — and to prove to myself right that I am worthy of scoring goals in the NWSL and being on the national team.

“But my end goal wasn’t: I want to make it back on the national team. It’s: I’m playing to make San Diego the best and most successful expansion team that there’s ever been in the NWSL. I am on one team and one team only and that’s San Diego.”

Never in her professional life had Morgan had the chance to focus all her energy on one team, one city. “I’m going to make the most of this time that I wouldn’t have had if I were going to camp,” she said.

To know just what it means for Morgan to stay put in one place and make a home, it’s worth considering her last 15 years and her tendency to pursue the unfamiliar. After college at Cal-Berkeley, where she was always looking for extra ways to get better — training on her own, with her coach and in pickup games with the men’s team, which included Servando Carrasco, the man she’d eventually married — her professional career took her all over the world. She’s played for the Western New York Flash, Portland Thorns, Orlando Pride, Olympique Lyonnais and Tottenham Hotspur. Meanwhile, her husband, also a soccer player, has his own list of cities and teams. They’ve spent years doing long-distance. And, of course, Morgan also simultaneously traveled the world for the national team.

Morgan’s most recent European jaunt, Tottenham, was a decision that happened fast — and it affected her more than she’d anticipated. Fresh off giving birth to her daughter, Charlie, she’d scrambled to figure out how to get game fit for the delayed Olympics in 2021 because the next NWSL season wouldn’t start up until March.

“My husband, possibly jokingly, said, ‘Why don’t you look at playing abroad for the rest of the year?’ … I don’t think he realized how seriously I was going to take that suggestion,” she says with a laugh. “Yeah,” she said to Servando, “that is a great idea.”

Her agent called every team, trying to figure out where she could play for four months and get back game fit so that she was ready for the Olympics. Joined by her 5-month-old baby and her mother-in-law, Morgan went to north London.

Players who have a baby and return to the game often face a climate of doubt. (The most recent episode of the new audio docuseries “Hustle Rule” takes a look at what mothers are up against.) In Tottenham, Morgan began her comeback.

She describes the experience in one excited rush: “I am so grateful to them for being so accommodating of me. Here I am, still breastfeeding, going over there, not 90 minutes fit, not even 30 minutes fit, thinking that I am because I’d been training, just on my own. Little did I know, I still I had long way to go.

“I got a little knee injury, a little cartilage broke off, which is not uncommon after pregnancy, after having a baby inside you. And all of a sudden, I’m away from my daughter seven to eight hours a day, which I’d never been before. I couldn’t really breastfeed after that — my milk dried up. I couldn’t produce enough being away from her that long, not having an area or time to pump … although I tried initially to bring ice and a lunch bag to put the milk in. I would pump before training and after meeting.

“And I’m so grateful to my husband for supporting me because he was away from me and my daughter for seven, eight weeks. But it was the step I needed at the time. And a lot of people called me crazy for it — and I think I was a little crazy to make that decision, but the team was so welcoming to me and I had the best time there.”

Tottenham, a club founded in 1865, has a storied history and loyal supporters. When people saw Morgan walking down the street in her Tottenham gear, they cheered and gave her a nod of approval or they booed — London is a city of divided loyalties. And the women’s side has about as good of a Cinderella story as you get: In the course of a decade, managers Karen Hills and Juan Carlos Amoros took the amateur, fourth-division team through three promotions all the way to the top division of English women’s football.

In the beginning, Hills had coached kids during the day, voluntarily trained the women at night, drove the team bus and made jam sandwiches — all the things you do in amateur football. Now, Hills was coaching Alex Morgan, and this woman cared. Hills had nursed this dream and this team for 11 years (“for years and years,” says Morgan), and now Morgan had the chance to help her carry it still farther.

Tottenham practiced on what felt like a forgotten schoolyard field: rocks, holes, half-dirt. “I hadn’t played on a field like that since I was 12,” says Morgan, and not in a complaining kind of way — she sounds excited. The team didn’t have its own weight room either. “You were working out next to anybody with a gym pass,” Morgan says.

The team had to lock up its locker room after they used it because it was a public area. But these circumstances brought them closer: they were playing on a questionable surface together, and they were hoping for more together. “It was just challenging — and I think that’s what created a camaraderie between the players and the coaches. The challenge was what was so fun,” Morgan says. She doesn’t mean the challenge of playing on rocks — she means the challenge of seeing whether together they could take the team to a new horizon.

And when a world-class player like Morgan shows up on your team, things happen. She was instrumental in the push for better training facilities — she and a group of players talked with the director of women’s football about it. “It wasn’t as professional as it should’ve been. I pushed the club to do better — not the players, not the coaches, but the club — and they did. Now, the women play in the same exact training facilities as the men, full time. I am proud of taking part in that. To see that evolution in front of my own eyes … it was incredible.”

After one training session penalty kick, a teammate was quick to celebrate, parroting Morgan’s goal celebration against England at the 2019 World Cup — one that had stirred some minor outrage overseas. She sipped from an invisible cup of tea, raised her pinky and looked cheekily at Morgan as her teammates broke into laughter.

After seasons combining with Canada’s Christine Sinclair in Portland and Marta in Orlando, winning World Cups and an Olympics, and even traveling with the U.S. State Department’s Sports Diplomacy program and kicking handmade balls around with kids in Tanzania, she has come home to San Diego. It’s her dream city; it’s also where her husband’s family is from, and not too far from where she too grew up in Diamond Bar, California. Like at Tottenham, she once again got the chance to take part in building a club.

Here, living in the same city in her husband, she has gotten to know San Diego in a way that was never possible while crisscrossing the world. With Charlie in tow, they go to street markets and local fairs, ride their electric bikes down to the beach and build sand castles, and go to see the lions at Safari Park. Morgan wants to be a part of her community, a supporter of others — she partners with local, women-owned businesses and promotes them on her social channels. Before preseason, she played in pickup games with old friends, with guys from the USL’s San Diego Loyals and with her husband.

“I always try and be on Servando’s team so he doesn’t two-foot me,” Morgan says. “And also because he’s really good.” Ten or so years after it all began — their relationship, her international soccer stardom — they are still playing together, still finding each other on the field.

When the NWSL season began, her family and Servando’s family both got to come to the Wave FC games. The beginning half of the season, they played at the 6,000-capacity Torero Stadium. It has an intimate and special feeling — and they packed the house. Every home match, Morgan gifts 20 tickets to youth girls’ teams across San Diego, focusing on underserved areas. The section of the stadium is called Alex’s Home Break — a surfer’s term that refers to your regular spot, the place where your face is easily recognized and you feel welcome.

On the field, she has been on a goal-scoring tear, leading the league with 11 goals. After she scored four goals against Gotham FC on her daughter’s second birthday, Wave supporters hung a banner on the rails — it’s a portrait featuring the back of her jersey, but instead of MORGAN, it says FOUR-GAN.

When each game has ended and the fans have cleared out, Morgan always takes the field again, this time to kick the ball around with her daughter. “I mean, it’s cool watching me play and all, but, like, she is just waiting for her time,” Morgan says.

In June, Andonovski texted Morgan and asked when she would be free. She responded, “I’m free any time.” But she was actually about to drive home, so she immediately started fretting: “I was like, oh my God what if he calls while I’m driving, thinking, like, what’s the news going to be, because honestly I had no idea.”

He did call her while she was driving. She pulled off the freeway and parked — this is not the kind of conversation you have while you’re driving. But this chat was easier than the last one: For the first time in eight months, she had been invited back with the national team. You’re coming to the World Cup/Olympic qualifiers, he told her.

On Instagram afterward, she posted a picture of her and teammate Megan Rapinoe — the other veteran called back into camp after months away. “See ya in camp,” she wrote with a sly, half-smile emoticon.

Morgan has been a veteran for a long time now. But while there were 17 World Cup veterans on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic team, now the veterans are surrounded by 22- and 23-year-olds. And yet it’s the veterans who are like kids out there: playful, a little mischievous, full of grins.

While the young players are feeling the pressure of showing they have what it takes, all this looking-to-the-next-generation talk appears to have really freed up the veterans. They look buoyant out there, ecstatically confident.

There is plenty of banter: When Kelley O’Hara ripped a beauty into the side-netting during the Colombia friendly, after the game she joked to the camera, in an old-lady voice, with a wagging finger, “Watch out, Alex and Pinoe, I’m coming for you!” In the Haiti game, when Rapinoe was about to sub in, O’Hara called out to her and Rapinoe then broke out into the dance known as the whip — a little shoulder-shimmy — right before trotting out to the field. Once in the game, Rapinoe immediately played the ball to Morgan, showcasing their connection and their understanding of one another.

This zest, this fun, also feels intentional — like Rapinoe, Morgan, O’Hara and captain Becky Sauerbrunn are trying to coax the rookies toward playfulness, in the same way that O’Reilly and crew once did for them. “Heather, Abby, Shannon Boxx, Christie Rampone — those are all players who I was like, OK, if I could follow in their footsteps, if I don’t curve to the left a little bit while they’re going right, I’m going to be OK,” Morgan says.

If in the last Olympics, Morgan believed she didn’t bring her best self and didn’t make it fun, she’s moving in the opposite direction now.

“Getting removed from the national team gave me a reset,” Morgan says. “At this point in my career, I’m playing soccer because I genuinely love it. And I’m having fun. It’s not that I need it to fulfill myself, or need it to feel value in myself, or that I need it financially — I’m playing because I want to keep playing.” That happiness — that genuine thrill in playing — can be felt all around.

“The veteran’s job is tricky — you want to usher in this new generation but you also care about your job,” O’Reilly reflects. “You care about starting — Alex’s a fierce competitor. She wants to put a stamp on her career in this final stretch. It’s critical to her legacy — she wants to prove she’s in the top three of all time. So, it’s like, you want to take my starting job? You’re gonna have to do better than this. That’s what it means to care about the team — you make it challenging for the next generation … not by pushing anyone down but by bringing them up with you.”

In the NWSL, after Alex Morgan scored her 10th goal of the season, Sophia Smith, the 21-year-old who is the second-leading goal scorer in the league, and who scored two goals on the same day Morgan scored her 10th, tweeted at her: “Slow downnnnnn” with an exasperated emoticon, as if to say, how am I supposed to catch you if you keep up this pace? Morgan responded, “Omg coming from the brace queen!! (Crown emoticon) Brings those goals to qualifiers ok thanks.”

In the first qualifier against Haiti, Smith was quiet on the night, stiffer than normal. Meanwhile, Morgan scored twice. The first goal was a beauty, an insouciant outside-of-the-foot toss, a casual act of brilliance. In the 2022 edition of Alex Morgan, she’s as likely to wow you with her creativity as she is with her speed.

In the next qualifier against Jamaica, it was Smith’s turn: five minutes into the game, she flew up the wing, lobbed the ball around one side of the defender, flew by the other side, then bent the ball into the side netting with the outside of her foot. It is, she thinks, her first time scoring with the outside of her foot. And then she scores again.

This is what bringing-them-up-with-you looks like. And Morgan is taking this idea beyond her own team.

You could see it in an interaction that happened right after their W Championship game against Haiti in Monterrey, Mexico. Kethna Louis, the talented 25-year-old Haitian center-back, asked Morgan for her jersey. In the video clip, you see Morgan peel off her shirt and say, “I want yours, too.” Louis looks taken aback, momentarily confused — like, you want mine? Morgan smiles and repeats her request, “I want yours, in return.” Morgan holds out her palms, her body language playful, like bring it, let’s do this. In the background, you can hear Louis’ teammates laughing and cheering in French — and assuring her that Morgan is serious.

With that request, Morgan changes the dynamic. Now Louis goes home not just having Alex Morgan’s jersey but also knowing Alex Morgan has hers. It’s not a superstar bestowing someone with her jersey — now it’s a star of one team trading with a star of another. As Morgan walks away, she passes a dozen or so teenage ball girls who are aflutter with giggles at their proximity to Morgan.

Alex Morgan is not just a leader on the U.S. team. She’s a leader for the world over. And this idea that floated about just a few months ago, that Morgan might not make the national team? It seems like the most preposterous thing anybody’s ever heard.

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