Alex Morgan at her best as hat trick opens Tournament of Nations

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- The goals beat Japan. But they had a message for Australia and Brazil, too. Specifically for two of the best in the world who wear the colors of those respective nations.

Marta is far from finished. Sam Kerr is just getting started. But Alex Morgan? Bring it on.

Call it one goal to answer Marta, one to answer Kerr, and one just for fun.

Playing for the United States in the kind of game in which goals aren't supposed to be easy to come by, Morgan's fourth international hat trick paced a 4-2 win against Japan. It was the opening game for each team in the Tournament of Nations, an event that includes the aforementioned Australia and Brazil.

Even while Australia picked apart Brazil in the day's opener, both global stars in that game lived up to their billing. Without much help for the first hour, Marta still managed to shine. She eventually set up Brazil's lone goal when she teased her way past a defender and put a cross at Debinha's feet. It was too little, too late because of Kerr. The young Australian's pinpoint finish in transition gave Australia a three-goal lead and was just reward on a day when she looked not just like one of 10 finalists for FIFA player of the year but the best player on the field.

But at least on this day, both were warm-up acts. The sellout crowd of more than 18,000 came to see Morgan. She delivered with a reminder that this young American team still has a veteran backbone.

"I think she's just come into her own," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said of a player who reached 89 goals with her barrage against the world's sixth-ranked team. "I know she's been dynamic for a long time, but I just think there has been a shift in terms of the consistency in her game."

Morgan put the U.S. women in front in the 18th minute by staying composed in traffic to get her right foot on Megan Rapinoe's cross in front of goal.

"She's always wanting to make runs in behind -- usually because she scores on the end of it. If I scored that often, I'd be a willing runner, too," Rapinoe joked after a goal of her own in addition to the assist. "But no, for me, it's great because she's always moving. She makes it really hard for the defense. She makes really good runs in behind the backside of that center back."

Japan answered almost immediately, breaking through the U.S. defense in less than two minutes to level the score in the 20th minute. But Morgan put the United States back in front before the game was a half-hour old. This time she sensed the open space in the box and made herself available to Emily Sonnett as the outside back settled a cross and then sent the ball in toward the striker. Morgan headed the ball back across the goal and past the keeper.

She made another run to the post to complete the hat trick. She was far from the star of that play, not when Tobin Heath, shortly after coming on as a substitute, toyed with Japan's Moeno Sakaguchi at the end line (the Japanese player got some revenge with a wonderful long-range goal of her own later).

But Morgan shone even in the smallest moments. She was the target who headed down a ball into the path of Julie Ertz for a golden opportunity late in the first half. And not long after, with Japan connecting short passes in the midfield, as is its wont, Morgan suddenly accelerated like a sprinter out of the blocks when she sniffed a pass that lacked enough weight. She slid into the tackle and won the ball back for the United States to effectively end the half.

"I feel like we really stayed in it defensively," Morgan said. "It was a lot of work -- it might not have looked like it, but it was tiring. But I felt like when we did win the ball we were able to counterattack their attack and we were able to get some of the most dangerous chances."

There wasn't a counterattack in that instance -- there wasn't enough time. Still, she did the work.

Ellis said it's that trait, the hunger to do the work that will eventually lead to goals for her or someone else, that defines Morgan. And it defines her all the more since the disappointment -- personal and collective -- of the 2016 Olympics. At 29 years old, Morgan has never played hungrier. If there was ever a time when it felt like she was something other than a cornerstone, it's gone.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Alex Morgan has four career hat tricks and 89 international goals for the United States.

She already has surpassed the seven goals she scored for the U.S. women in 2017 and that total was enough to lead the team. Spanning both the end of last year and first half of this year, she has 16 goals in 16 games for the United States. That includes four goals against World Cup contenders Canada and Japan and four goals against Mexico -- likely the only team that could make World Cup qualifying more than a formality for the U.S. women this fall.

The U.S. team is built around its front line at the moment, and she is literally in the middle of it.

"I feel like Jill has kind of set a precedent of change within this team over the last couple of years," Morgan said. "I feel like she's put a lot of pressure on the older players to continue to perform. Obviously we have a lot of younger players with a lot of energy and with a lot of desire to ... make the World Cup team. For me, it's just continuing to perform and to continue to get on the scoreboard. I feel like I'm doing what she's asking of me.

"I feel really good in my performance tonight and in my performance this last six months or a year, really."

There was plenty else happening Thursday. Without Becky Sauerbrunn, who Ellis said was available but didn't play as a precaution as the defender returns from injury, the defense had some hair-raising moments. Crystal Dunn was effective pushing forward on the left side and teaming well with Rapinoe -- and pushing high, sometimes dangerously so, is her charge. But it is also a gambit that the rest of the back line must learn to incorporate, and the goals the United States allowed were not clips the back line likely will enjoy watching back on replay.

And it isn't Morgan whom the team needs more from to win this tournament and retain its World Cup title next summer. She is a given. But this was still her night to show why that is so.

Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire

Megan Rapinoe had a goal and an assist in the U.S. women's 4-2 victory over Japan to open the Tournament of Nations.

Much as the youth movement has become this team's identity, Ellis never made lowering the average age of the roster her sole objective -- or even an objective at all beyond the most literal sense that it was going to have to get younger without the likes of Abby Wambach and Christie Rampone. The goal was to get better.

And while Ertz edges her way into the group, it's arguable the team's two best players since 2016, since the reset, are two of its most experienced players: Morgan and Rapinoe. That's the blueprint. Be as hungry as them.

"We both kind of came on the team around the same time, and we both sort of generally played the same positions for that whole time," Rapinoe said. "I feel like we know each other inside and out. I know what kind of ball she wants and what run she's going to make. And I think she knows me, too -- she can see the way I'm shaping up and when to make her run."

For all the question marks, why can the U.S. women win the World Cup?

It was right there on display Thursday night for all to see -- those other global superstars included.

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