Healthy Alex Morgan Brings More Sophisticated Game To USWNT

Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

FRISCO, Texas -- Alex Morgan recalls most everything about her first appearance for the United States women's national team. She remembers then-coach Pia Sundhage informing her the night before, a relief after weeks of training with the team. She remembers the bus ride to the stadium and watching from the bench in the first half, thinking, planning how to contribute and play to her strengths. She remembers the nervousness, how unusual a sensation when associated with what was second nature. To be nervous about playing soccer was like being nervous about blinking.

And Morgan, who was born at the height of summer, raised in Southern California and scored the biggest goal of her life to that point under sunny skies and temperatures in the 70s in the Southern Hemisphere to win the Under-20 World Cup, remembers the snow that day in Utah.

Snow had not been part of her preparation for that moment. The two of them did not get along particularly well that day.

"That was a first cap that I will never forget," Morgan said. "But I almost don't want to remember."

There was jest in her words, the memory an easy one to playfully rue six years, 103 caps, 59 goals and Olympic and World Cup gold medals later.

And yet history has a way of repeating itself.

While she will never forget 2015, a year that brought her the aforementioned and career-defining World Cup medal and a ticker tape parade, too, it might also fit the description of the best year of her life that she wouldn't choose to relive.

It was a year of injuries and personal frustration wrapped around a brief interlude of unadulterated communal joy.

"I felt like, in a way, I was held back a little bit, and I didn't reach my personal expectations or goals, even though it was probably one of the best years of my career," Morgan said. "So it's interesting in the fact that I feel like I could have performed better at the World Cup. If I had been healthier throughout the year, consistently, I could have made a bigger impact for my club team and for my country.

"But at the same time, I don't want to complain because it was a great year, and a lot of things went my way and went the team's way."

The 26-year-old Morgan begins the new year healthy and partnered with Carli Lloyd at the top of a American attack moving on without Abby Wambach for the first time in almost 15 years. Morgan is new to the role of team elder, if not yet in years than as one of only four players who began Olympic qualifying with 100 caps. That seniority brings with it newfound opportunity for activism. And she is the face of the NWSL's newest franchise in Orlando, Florida, where she begins a new phase of life with husband Servando Carrasco of the city's MLS team.

All of it is why Morgan has never been more interesting than she is at the dawn of 2016. Excellence is entertaining, but complexity is compelling.

We saw the first act of her career, were introduced to a protagonist of remarkable talent and unmistakable appeal. We sat through the second act, too, wherein the adversity necessary in any drama slowed her ascent, or at least her goal-scoring rate, and left her a frustrated figure.

But the third act is the good stuff. It is where Romeo proclaimed himself fortune's fool and Hamlet pondered to be or not to be.

So the curtain rises on Morgan's third act in 2016.

It helps that she is on stage. Ankle and knee injuries during the past three years limited her availability for both club and country, and 2015 seemed to sum up the state of affairs. While she appeared in 22 of 26 national team games, her year seemed defined by the wait to see if her left knee would be ready for the World Cup and news after the tournament that she would undergo arthroscopic surgery on her right knee. The combination of injuries and international duty limited her to four appearances for the NWSL's Portland Thorns FC.

Asked if there is any question she would rather never hear again than that about her health, Morgan countered that she would settle for the frequent inquiry merely serving as something other than introduction. "How are you doing," long ago ceased to be amiable small talk.

"If I could never have that question be the very first question I'm asked, that would be great," Morgan said. "But I do feel great. I feel 100 percent, I feel healthy. I think I made big strides in January camp with fitness and with physically being able to train every day. Now I'm just looking forward to getting a lot more games under my belt."

Her play thus far does not betray the optimism. She scored a goal against Ireland in the first game of the year, her 100th international appearance, before adding two more in the first Olympic qualifier against Costa Rica. She also set up Lloyd for the first two goals the United States scored in that friendly against Ireland. The first assist was intentional, a well-placed cross across the box. The second was serendipitous, Morgan's header saved into Lloyd's path. The sequences, albeit not against the caliber of opponent that will stand in the way of Olympic gold, showed what there is to like about the arrangement. The two work well in tandem, but they also pull apart defenses individually in a way that frees the other.

"It's different than the Abby-Alex combo that was there for such a long time," Lloyd said. "I think what she does great is getting in behind the back line, she's able to make defenders kind of open that pocket and that space for me."

U.S. coach Jill Ellis, whose history with Morgan goes back more than a decade to college recruiting days, has stressed the idea of different than what came before. Her message to Morgan is that the present isn't about reclaiming 2012, when the forward scored 28 goals in 31 appearances for the Olympic gold medalists. It is instead about moving ahead with 2016 and using the time that has passed.

"I think her movement, her sophistication of runs, I think that has gotten better and better and better," Ellis said. "I've seen it. For her to not just finish her chances, which she's starting to do and she's gaining confidence with that, it's I think she's just going to terrorize back lines with her movement, her sophistication."

If the new year is about evolution more than restoration on the field, it is only in keeping with the rest of Morgan's life.

Consider the following timeline. The United States won the World Cup in Vancouver, British Columbia, on July 5. The team rode through a ticker tape parade in New York on July 10. Morgan had the procedure on her knee in Los Angeles on July 17. Then, as she was finally preparing for a few days at home, Carrasco was traded from Houston to Orlando on July 20 and they were on the move again. None of which even takes into account that her other place of employment at the time, in addition to the national team, was in the Pacific Northwest.

There are nice perks to being a global sports star, albeit one Sepp Blatter doesn't recognize, but appearing as the first woman on the cover of a cultural touchstone video game and authoring a New York Times bestseller don't make a nomadic life or the new realities of long-distance marriage any easier.

"It's hard to not have any sort of consistency," Morgan said, "In terms of my own life, but then when I bring someone else into my life, with my husband, and creating a life together and having different lifestyles, in the fact that I'm at a hotel 70 percent of the year. We don't see each other often. I pretty much live out of a suitcase. I think for anyone who is living this lifestyle on this team, it's difficult in itself to stay mentally strong, to be able to enter into a new environment week in and week out and have your diet be consistent, have your sleep patterns be consistent, be able to mentally and emotionally be stable and positive. It's not easy."

Her own move to Orlando, which admittedly paid a steep price in talent to acquire her, provides at least a modicum of stability. It is also a professional challenge, as the face of a franchise that hews to a developing sense of self, or at least a confidence in expressing herself.

Mia Hamm was already 24 years old when the United States won gold in the 1996 Olympics, 27 when the national team had the stage to itself in the 1999 World Cup. Wambach was 24 when she won her first major title in the 2004 Olympics. Morgan was 22 when she scored her first World Cup goal in 2011 and a full-fledged mainstream star in the social-media world soon thereafter. This isn't new ground to cover, but it remains true that Morgan dealt with a level of stardom rarely seen in women's team sports and did so at a younger age than anyone in the discussion.

"I remember still my first interview I had, and Abby just told me, 'Just be honest, just speak from your mind.'" Morgan said. "I feel like I blacked out during the interview, and it was like a basic interview. But then you live and you learn."

The mental image of that conversation is almost comical, one of the most unguarded and extemporaneous public talkers in sports telling a young Morgan, by her own admission deathly afraid of public speaking, to just let it rip. Even now, Morgan talks about forming thoughts she knows will be written down and distributed word for word. If the existential oddity of that arrangement ever occurred to Wambach, it certainly never slowed her. That isn't Morgan. It won't ever be Morgan. But where the filter cuts off and the bully pulpit begins is one more part of the evolution.

For instance, it was Morgan, along with Christine Sinclair, who a year ago raised the issue of substandard hotels for NWSL teams to a national debate within the soccer community and spilling over into mainstream media. When she spoke, the league had to listen.

"I think it's always about picking your battles and picking when the time is right," Morgan said, also pointing to her choice to speak out regarding the substandard artificial turf in Hawaii that led to the cancellation of a game this past December. "I just feel like there should be more gender equity and more opportunity globally for women and women should be respected on a higher level. On those fronts, I have grown into what I feel most comfortable speaking about, what I'm most passionate about. So I hope that what I do on the field gives me the most leverage to be able to do something good in this world [in regard to gender equity issues] that I'm passionate about."

Even as Ellis rattled off all the ways in which Morgan helped the team during the World Cup beyond her lone goal, Ellis eventually came back to the inescapable truth that, "Ultimately a goal scorer is always going to measure themselves by goals." The rest of us are no different. Morgan's year will ultimately be judged on how healthy she remains and how many goals she scores for club and country. In that there is no nuance. But in every other way, someone who at 22 seemed as two-dimensional as most superheroes, is at 26 a more fully formed and fascinating three-dimensional character.

As we watch that unfold, so do her teammates, so many of them now her junior.

"I admired her a lot for that last year," Morgan Brian said of what her teammate experienced in 2015. "Especially as a younger player, I tend to watch a lot and just see and observe my teammates and especially the older ones -- the more experienced ones. For me, she did go through a lot of challenges with injuries and getting back and then having another setback. She always kept her head down, she worked hard, she did what she was supposed to do to get herself back on the field and healthy.

"She's used to playing and scoring goals for us. It's a different role sitting on the sideline because you're injured. I think she handled it the best way possible, and that's a testament to her character."

So arrives the third act of Alex Morgan. The one that is always worth watching.