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How a burned-out Alex Morgan found her spark again

Alex Morgan has scored 17 goals in her past 17 combined appearances for the national team and NWSL-leading San Diego Wave. (Miguel Sierra/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

MONTERREY, Mexico — On Saturday, two days before the U.S. women’s national soccer team began its quest for World Cup and Olympic berths, Alex Morgan celebrated her 33rd birthday here.

Her father, Michael, visited. There were churros and cake, hugs, songs and well-wishes from teammates, several of whom are a decade younger.

“They definitely keep me young,” she said in an interview. “So much youthfulness. Sometimes I forget my age. I’m like: ‘Okay, you’re not 23; you’re 33. You have to act like you’re 33.’ ”

To say Morgan has gotten better with age isn’t precise. After all, she has been awfully good since she broke into the sport’s most decorated women’s program in 2010. She has ascended to fifth on the U.S. scoring chart with 117 goals and won two world titles while also serving as a cornerstone of the nascent National Women’s Soccer League.

More accurately, she has adapted with age and, in the past six months, gained a second wind.

With a two-goal effort during a 3-0 victory over Haiti on Monday, Morgan has pocketed 17 goals in her past 17 combined appearances for the national team and the NWSL expansion San Diego Wave.

“She’s baaaaack!” gushed teammate Megan Rapinoe, who turned 37 on Tuesday. “The old ones are doing okay, I guess.”

Until this spring, when goals began to flow again, there were no assurances Morgan would be back for this Concacaf W Championship, a two-week, eight-nation regional tournament to decide places in the two global competitions.

Following last fall’s post-Olympic tour with his veteran core, U.S. Coach Vlatko Andonovski summoned many inexperienced players, including Washington Spirit striker Ashley Hatch, the NWSL’s scoring champion last year.

It was the start of a two-year stretch between major tournaments, and besides needing to evaluate prospects, Andonovski wanted to send a clear message to the elders that they would have to show they belonged — through their club performances or intangibles, such as leadership and experience.

Morgan, Rapinoe and others were left off several rosters.

“I was told straight up: I have to be producing to be on this team,” Morgan said. “I’d talk with Vlatko before every camp. That’s something I really respect about him, having those hard conversations, even though that’s not what I wanted to hear at the time. It was something that I look back on, and having more clarity was important.”

The pause came at an important time for Morgan, who had a tumultuous season with the Orlando Pride and a disappointing Olympics in Tokyo, where the top-ranked Americans sputtered through the tournament, lost to Canada in the semifinals and took home a bronze medal.

“I was pretty burnt out,” she said. “I wasn't in a mind-set where I was happy with my production level and how I was playing. It was noticeable.”

The first step was leaving Orlando, where a midseason coaching change and winless ruts prompted a request for a trade closer to family in Southern California.

“It wasn't a pleasant [NWSL] experience, at least last year,” Morgan said. “It was very divided” in Orlando.

With a fresh league start and a break from the national team, Morgan poured her energy into not only sharpening her game but helping mold the Wave.

“As an expansion team, I wanted to make sure it was done the right way,” she said. Midway through the season, San Diego (6-2-3) is first in the 12-team league, and Morgan leads the regular season scoring race with 11 goals, including four in a May 7 game against Gotham FC. She also had four goals in six games during the Challenge Cup, a preseason tournament.

“I was just happier in life,” she said. “The goals came by me investing in San Diego 100 percent. And it really was the first time I was able to focus on one team and one team only. I wasn’t thinking, ‘How can I get back on the national team?’ I was thinking, ‘How can I make San Diego successful?’ ”

With Morgan’s scoring rate surging, Andonovski invited her back for two friendlies late last month against Colombia.

Speaking about Morgan’s career arc, Andonovski said: “It’s not easy to be in the best form for 10 years. Sometimes it’s because of the environment. Sometimes it’s because of players around you. Sometimes it’s just simple motivation. It’s hard to motivate yourself or to commit to this game for 10 years every day of your life, every hour, every minute that you spend on the field.

“This time there is something else that motivated Alex to show what she can do. She is enjoying the moment, and when they feel it, they take full advantage of it.”

On Monday, she scored seven minutes apart in the first half. The first was a gem — a leaping, no-look touch with the outside of her foot while making a near-post run on Mallory Pugh’s cross. The second was a looping header, set up by Kelley O’Hara. Earlier in the match, she nodded a header off the crossbar.

“In the NWSL, she tore it up,” captain Becky Sauerbrunn said. “And then she's carrying that form on with the national team, which is what we need.”

Morgan’s game has evolved in recent years, from speed demon racing behind defenders to nuanced forward. She must play with her back to the goal, find solutions against opponents that typically play in a deep formation and compress space.

And, she added, “you have to be that ruthless finisher.”

With up to five games in 15 days, Morgan and some other starters from the Haiti match are expected to be on the bench Thursday against Jamaica (1-0-0). Hatch is likely to start in Morgan’s place.

A U.S. victory, combined with Haiti beating or tying Mexico, would clinch a top-two finish in Group A and seal a place in the World Cup — Morgan’s fourth.

“I know it sounds crazy, but I do believe she’s actually playing better every time you see her on the field,” Andonovski said. “The goals the other day … that’s Alex Morgan in a nutshell: When you need it the most, you can count on her.”