MANCHESTER, England — In the dining area of a hotel and country club on the edge of this city nearly 200 miles north of London, Alex Morgan folded her tired, lean body into a chair and smiled. By Tuesday morning, the mix of exhaustion and adrenaline had dissipated. She looked every bit like the next face of the U.S. women’s soccer team.
The role has arrived early for Morgan, but it makes sense. At age 5, she wrote that she wanted to become a professional athlete, a note her mother still has. At 19, she watched from home as the United States took gold at the Beijing Olympics, becoming more determined that she would be there next time around. At 22, she became a reserve on a World Cup team that suffered a heartbreaking final loss.
And Monday night, Morgan, just more than a month after her 23rd birthday, scored the goal that beat Canada and propelled the United States into Thursday’s gold medal game.
“Just a lot of emotions,” Morgan said Tuesday.
Morgan’s emergence as a front-line talent comes not only as the United States approaches a final game of the London Olympics against Japan that is fraught with story lines. It was the Japanese, after all, who came back on the Americans in the final of last year’s Women’s World Cup, a loss in penalty kicks that still gnaws at the United States. But it also comes as the women’s game in America moves on to yet another stage.
There is no professional league to which the players on the women’s national team can return, no stage — beyond a couple of exhibition matches — for them to build on their reputations. So watch Morgan in Thursday’s gold medal game because, as U.S. Coach Pia Sundhage said, “She has a gift,” and with no World Cup for three years and Olympics for four, this is the opportunity to take in a talent just as it blossoms.
“I think maybe in the beginning, people saw her just as a pretty face who scored goals,” teammate Megan Rapinoe said. “But she’s so much more than that.”
Morgan’s goal in the 123rd minute of Monday night’s semifinal against Canada provided not only a 4-3 victory, but the latest indelible moment for a team that has created plenty of them over the last two decades. In getting her head on Heather O’Reilly’s cross and touching it past Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod, she didn’t look like she was in her first season in the national team’s starting lineup. Last year, as she began to become a factor in the Americans’ run to the Women’s World Cup final, her teammates gave her the nickname “Baby Horse.”
“Just so much talent,” Rapinoe said. “Obviously very raw.”
Her development, though, has been essential to the American attack, a relentlessly fleet, skilled option that provides the perfect complement to veteran Abby Wambach, a four-wheel drive pickup truck by comparison. Wambach, by now, at 32, is the expected force, the player who frequently found herself in the middle of downright scrums against Canada. That Morgan rose to finish O’Reilly’s cross was important for the team, emphasizing that the Americans have another option. It was her third goal of the tournament — Wambach has five — and hardly surprising for those who know Morgan best.
“She is someone who wants to take the responsibility of winning on her shoulders,” said Neil McGuire, who coached Morgan at Cal, by phone. “She’s never afraid to take the shot.”
She is, though, in a position to distinguish herself from her team, even as she only now is solidifying her role within it. Over the winter, Morgan appeared in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue wearing only body paint. It was an individual moment for a member of a team that certainly doesn’t stifle individuality, but wants everything done for the betterment of the squad.
But from the moment she started at Cal as a freshman, even as she worked her way back from torn knee ligaments, Morgan has ingratiated herself with whatever team she has played on. She graduated from Cal in three-and-a-half years despite not only playing for the varsity but at various points leaving to train with the national under-20 team or the national team itself. And in both places, she worked to fit in.
“She’s blessed with tremendous humility,” McGuire said. “She’s very grounded. She works so hard for her teammates, and her teammates really care for her.”
At the national team level, that wouldn’t seem to be a given. But Morgan believes, “Everyone is equal on this team.” And there is a strong feeling that if you perform, any outside attention is not only fine, but helpful in drawing attention to a sport that still needs it.
“I think she’s done brilliant with it, because she is showing it on the field, but she’s an amazing role model off as well,” said veteran Christie Rampone, a national team member since Morgan was 6. “Even if it was all about her, the team is behind it, anywhere we can grow this sport. And as long as faces are out there, there’s going to be superstars on every team, and if everybody does their role, and just kind of back it up, we’ll all be successful.”
But after these Olympics — regardless of what happens Thursday — there is nowhere stateside where these women can continue their success. Twice, top-flight American leagues have folded. Morgan clearly hopes that a gold medal Thursday would provide even more interest — and, more importantly, financial backing, by perhaps the turn of the year.
“If nothing comes about,” she said, “then I’ll have to look abroad.”
Which would be sending the potential poster child of American women’s soccer for the next decade overseas. That, though, is a discussion for Friday and beyond. On Tuesday morning, Morgan was still aglow after the goal against Canada. On Thursday night, she will line up at Wembley Stadium in London, drawing not only eyes but defenders.
“Honestly, I had no doubt that I would be on this team in this moment,” Morgan said. “But I had no idea what my role was going to be.”
It is a pivotal, potentially sport-changing role. At these Olympics, “Baby Horse” is all grown up.
“She was kind of wild,” Rapinoe said. “And now she’s a beautiful stallion.”
Photos: Scenes from Day 11
Instagram: Post staffers keep their cameras out