If the U.S. women's national team is to win its first World Cup in 16 years, Alex Morgan's scoring ability will surely be one of the reasons. The 25-year-old from Diamond Bar, California, is arguably the most lethal striker on the planet -- an argument she is hoping to settle once and for all this summer in Canada. So what sets her apart from her peers? Let us count the ways.
Her best is yet to come
It's easy to forget Morgan, who has 51 goals in 81 international games, wasn't a starter for the U.S. at the 2011 World Cup in Germany; she came off the bench in five of the six matches and didn't play at all in the other.
"Because Alex has been around for a while, people don't realize that she's so young," said David Copeland-Smith, Morgan's personal skills trainer.
Soccer players tend to peak between ages 28 and 30, so he believes Morgan has barely scratched the surface of her potential. Copeland-Smith has been working specifically on making Morgan better in one-on-one situations, something she is already good at.
"I want her to receive that ball, look that defender in the eye and drive at them," he said. "I would say we've only seen 70 percent of her capability."
Morgan's game-winning goal against England in February was the 50th of her international career. That one came in the first half. But of the rest, almost half (23) happened in the final 30 minutes of the matches, including that memorable, last-minute effort against Canada in the 2012 Olympic semifinals.
"It's folklore now," U.S. coach Jill Ellis, an assistant at the London Games, said of the goal that helped the Americans go on to claim their third consecutive Olympic gold medal. "But I think that goal against Canada kind of solidified her value and showed just how important she was -- and is -- to this program."
The former University of California star had a 3.3 GPA when she graduated (a semester early) in 2010. Those brains help on the soccer field, too.
"She's gotten a lot more intelligent in her movements," Mexico defender-turned-ESPN analyst Monica Gonzalez said. "Even fast forwards are easy to mark if they start from a stopped position. But Alex constantly is moving in a way where she's playing off the defender's right shoulder. As soon as that defender looks over at the ball, Alex goes."
Even when her team doesn't have possession, she creates turnovers -- and scoring chances -- by anticipating foes' wayward clearances.
... And brawn
"She's got dense muscle," said Tony DiCicco, who led the U.S. to the 1999 world title and coached Morgan at the U-20 level nine years later. "She's more powerful than she looks."
Morgan's strength is particularly useful when the U.S. is trying to relieve pressure in its own end by thumping the ball up the field. There, Morgan -- who is 5-foot-8 -- is able to hold off bigger markers with her back, which gives her teammates time to reset defensively while also leading to opportunities at the other end, making her a vitally important outlet in tight games.
Speed to burn (defenders)
When the U.S. team underwent its fitness testing at January's camp in Southern California, Morgan clocked in as the fastest player on the squad -- ahead of noted speed demons Sydney Leroux and Christie Rampone. Those wheels make her dangerous in both the box and the open field.
"She's quick, and she's fast," Copeland-Smith said. "She can beat you over 5 yards. But if it's a 30-yard sprint, she's going to outrun you there, too."
More accurately, her left ankle, the health of which is the biggest question facing Morgan heading into the World Cup. Morgan suffered a stress reaction -- one step below a fracture -- on her shooting leg in October. She's healthy now, but there's at least some fear that the packed World Cup schedule and the tournament being played on artificial turf could make the ailment reappear at the worst possible time.
"If she's not on the field, there's nobody that's stretching the line, making defenders turn around and run at their own goal," espnW contributor and former U.S. star Julie Foudy said.
Still, don't expect Ellis to limit her minutes. "A striker has to play to feel that connection to the game," the coach said. "She'll be ready."
More than anything, what distinguishes Morgan is her all-world work ethic.
"Two days before her wedding, she was like, 'Can we train today?' " Copeland-Smith said. "Alex is marketed as an attractive girl who's good at football, but the reality is she's an absolute monster of an athlete who is never happy. She's always busting her ass in the gym, looking for any way to get better. People don't see that side of her. They just see this pretty face selling ChapStick."