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Alex Morgan gaining rhythm for U.S. World Cup squad ahead of Sweden match

Alex Morgan played 12 minutes in the U.S. opener vs. Australia (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Sidelined for weeks with a knee injury, Alex Morgan was never under consideration for a starting role in the U.S. Women’s World Cup opener Monday. In a U.S. squad featuring a wealth of frontline options, Coach Jill Ellis was in no hurry to rush Morgan back onto the field.

She practiced all out last week. She entered in the 78th minute of the 3-1 victory over Australia in the Group D match at Investors Group Field. And with her making steady strides in regaining fitness and rhythm, Morgan seems likely to receive additional playing time Friday against Sweden.

Is she ready to start? Probably not. After all, she has not played substantial minutes in international competition since an April 4 friendly against New Zealand in St. Louis. Her last 90-minute performance came in February. Before reporting to U.S. training camp, Morgan appeared in only one National Women’s Soccer League game: 75 minutes in the Portland Thorns’ season debut April 11 against the Boston Breakers.

“It’s about building her rhythm so that she can contribute more and more each game,” Ellis said Wednesday before a training session. “Physically she is doing great. Mentally she is in a good place.”

After Monday’s match, Morgan said she did not experience any pain.

“It’s been a while,” said Morgan, whose injury was a bone bruise in the left knee. “So it’s just a sigh of relief for me to be back on the field. It doesn’t matter how long it was. Glad I got on the pitch.”

Morgan did feel the effects of the long layoff, saying, “Obviously I was a little tired with the pressure we were putting on Australia and trying to keep possession and keep that 3-1 lead at the end of the game.”

Asked how Morgan’s increasing availability changes her options, Ellis said coyly: “It’s another option.”

Although Morgan’s speed and finishing touch would benefit the attack, Ellis appears to be taking a long-term outlook. The tournament is a four-week grind, with up to seven matches if the Americans reach the final. With other capable players available and the U.S. team already in good position to advance, Ellis seems reluctant to overextend Morgan.

Ellis paired Abby Wambach and Sydney Leroux on the frontline against Australia. Wambach, the sport’s all-time leader in international goals, set up Megan Rapinoe’s first goal by winning an aerial battle but was off-target on a pair of close-range headers. Leroux did not make an impact until she utilized her speed to infiltrate the penalty area in the 61st minute and cross to Christian Press for the go-ahead goal.

Press is a natural forward who lined up on the right flank Monday. Ellis declined to say what she has planned against Sweden, but Press’s move to the frontline would allow Morgan Brian (University of Virginia) to start in midfield and provide a more possession-oriented attack. Brian was a late substitute for Rapinoe on Monday.

The other part of the equation is Wambach’s role. At 35, she arrived at the tournament as a possible, but not certain, starter. Morgan’s extended absence increased the likelihood of a starting job. In the opener, she not only started, but played all 90 minutes. Ellis said Wednesday that Wambach recovered just fine and would be available for selection Friday.