MONTERREY, Mexico (AP) — As the U.S. national team has focused on developing young talent in anticipation of next summer's World Cup, veteran forward Alex Morgan has assumed a more vocal role.
Morgan, 33, is now one of the more senior members of the team, which has brought in budding players like fellow forwards Sophia Smith, Mallory Pugh, and Trinity Rodman since the Tokyo Olympics.
“The younger players can hold their own. They’ve been doing amazing. I think the one thing that I would say I definitely have increased this tournament is vocally on the field, like helping players with positioning, set pieces, the things that this team takes pride in, the mentality, kind of just helping push players along a little bit,” she said.
Morgan and the defending World Cup champions are in Mexico preparing for a showdown with rival Canada on Monday night in the title game of the CONCACAF W Championship.
The United States and Canada have already qualified for next summer's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand as top finishers at the tournament. But the winner of the final also earns one of the region's berths at the 2024 Olympics in France.
Morgan is not slowing down by any means, as evidenced by her fantastic club season so far. She is back home in California, in her first season playing for the expansion San Diego Wave, and currently leads the National Women's Soccer League with 11 goals in just 10 games.
At the W Championship, Morgan scored a pair of goals against Haiti in the group stage, for her 29th career multi-goal game. She has scored 21 goals in 22 qualification matches with the United States, third-most in team history. Overall, she has 117 goals and 47 assists in 195 career games.
“Alex has World Cup medals, Olympic medals. It’s something that she’s very, very good at, obviously, winning," current U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski said. "But also passing on the experience to some of the players that have never been in a situation like this, competing for first place and grinding out a win, or being able to win big tournaments.”
Morgan said the team is gaining momentum and doing a better job of reading the field after incorporating the new faces on the team and adopting Andonovski's tactical approach, which is tailored to each opponent.
“We also do need to understand, though, what the coach has given us," Morgan said. "We all have to buy in, we can’t have one or two players not doing what they’re supposed to do because that ruins the whole flow of the game if we’re going to play in certain structures. I think that’s important to know — it’s playing free but knowing your role, and that’s going to change from game to game.”
Morgan is easily one of the most recognizable and popular players on the team. In Mexico, she has been greeted with loud cheers. Among her admirers was a 2-year-old named Luca, whose mom posted video of the toddler hollering her name.
Morgan saw the video and sent Luca an autographed jersey. Then Luca met his favorite player following the match against Haiti.
But among those touching moments there's a job to do. Canada has increasingly challenged the United States on the international stage.
Canada won the gold medal at the Tokyo Games, beating Sweden on penalties in the final after edging the world's top-ranked U.S. team 1-0 in the semifinals. The United States won the bronze medal, which afterward the U.S. recognized was an honor while still acknowledging that it didn't meet the team's standards.
“I mean, the rivalry has definitely heated up the last couple of years. So it will be a great game. But it’s really not about looking back, it’s about looking forward," Morgan said. “At the same time, look at this squad, there’s a lot of girls that weren’t even there last year. So, this will be an opportunity for us to punch our ticket to the Olympics and prove to ourselves and the world why we have the No. 1 ranking.”
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Anne M. Peterson, The Associated Press