It’s easy to mistake Alex Morgan for a veteran.
The U.S. women’s soccer team forward has been in the spotlight scoring crucial goals in the semifinal and final at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, walking the red carpet at an “Entourage” HBO TV season premiere and posing in body paint for Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit edition.
Not to mention she has scored 22 goals in 38 games, dating back to March 2010.
So it might have come as a surprise when a reporter asked veteran midfielder Heather O’Reilly which young U.S. soccer players might “really make a name for themselves” at the London 2012 Olympic Games, and O’Reilly gestured across the room to her soon-to-be-23-year-old teammate.
“That’s one right there, Alex Morgan,” said O’Reilly, who at 27 has two Olympic Games and two Women’s World Cups to her name. “She is probably the best natural goal scorer that I’ve played with.”
Teammate Lauren Cheney didn’t mince words with similar acclaim a few minutes earlier.
“She can be the next Mia Hamm,” Cheney said of Morgan. “She can be the next Abby Wambach.”
Hamm and Wambach are the two leading scorers in U.S. history, with 158 and 134 goals, respectively. That’s high praise for someone who only broke into the starting lineup earlier this year, but it’s clear that the U.S. players are counting on Morgan to play a big role in their efforts to claim a third consecutive Olympic gold medal this summer.
The road to the Games continues Sunday when Team USA plays China in a tune-up game in Chester, Pa., outside of Philadelphia. The sold-out game at 18,500-seat PPL Park is one of four remaining friendlies before the squad kicks off against France in its Olympic opener on July 25.
“I’m definitely more ready to take on a greater role,” Morgan said.
U.S. coach Pia Sundhage has taken a sometimes agonizingly cautious approach with Morgan, who earned her political economy degree from Cal a semester early in 2010 so she could focus on making the U.S. roster for the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany.
Although Morgan showed promise coming off the bench in five of the six games in Germany and scoring the two high-profile goals, Sundhage continued to use the team’s youngest player as a sub.
Morgan finally made it impossible for Sundhage to keep her out of the starting lineup this past winter. The Diamond Bar, Calif., native made her third career start on Jan. 29 and scored two goals in a 4-0 victory over Canada in the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament finals. She hasn’t let up since, scoring eight goals in the team’s seven games that followed — all as a starter.
“It’s just been a lot of fun watching Alex come onto the scene,” O’Reilly said. “And I think she’s done a really good job with the responsibility that’s been thrown on her at a young age and young in her career.”
Life has certainly changed for Morgan since her breakthrough performance at the World Cup last July. The 22-year-old has high-profile endorsement deals with major companies such as Coca-Cola and Nike, not to mention opportunities like the photo spread with Sports Illustrated. Perhaps only Wambach and goalie Hope Solo — two veteran players who will go down as two of the greatest of all time — have more crossover appeal among the current U.S. women’s soccer players.
“I had no idea how much what I do and say can influence younger girls, because I was one of those younger girls looking up to Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly and those players from the ’99 World Cup,” said Morgan, who was the first pick in the 2011 draft for the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer and now plays for the Seattle Sounders Women in the United Soccer Leagues W-League.
“So I really got thrown into this a year and a half ago, and I had to grow up pretty fast in that short amount of time, so it’s really just being a positive influence and a positive role model for those young girls.”
With another strong performance at the Olympic Games this summer, that influence will only continue to grow. But as she prepares for what would be her second major international tournament, Morgan insists that her only goals are on the field, where she hopes to take the next step in following Hamm and Wambach by winning an Olympic gold medal.
“I don’t want to focus too much on those sorts of things because at the end of the day I’m getting those sorts of endorsements because of soccer,” Morgan said of her outside opportunities. “And I need to represent myself in that sort of manner and have that as a priority at all times.”