KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Alex Morgan hasn’t exactly been a fresh face on the U.S. Women’s National Team for some time. But she’s still finding ways to dazzle.
Morgan notched a hat trick Thursday night for the U.S. in the team’s first match of the Tournament of Nations, helping to take down Japan 4-2 in front of an announced sellout crowd at Children’s Mercy Park.
“Coming out of the latter stages of last year …. There’s just a hunger and work ethic,” national team head coach Jill Ellis said of Morgan. “She’s just taken a big step forward and embraced the responsibility of being a goal-scorer on this team, and I think we have a pretty potent offense.”
That potency came to life Thursday against Japan, currently ranked sixth in the world. And Morgan was the one to get it started.
An early U.S. lead in the 18th minute came after Morgan got inches past her defender and slotted her first one home.
Japan tied it up in less than two minutes: Mina Tanaka got behind the U.S. back line and her shot got right past goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher.
But it was Morgan, once again, who seesawed the U.S. back in front in the 26th minute. Emily Sonnett took a touch on the far side and chipped it to Morgan in the box. Morgan’s header put the Americans up 2-1, a lead they wouldn’t relinquish again.
It was a pile-on from there.
In the 56th minute, Tobin Heath kept the ball barely inbounds with some expert footwork on the near side, toying with her defenders as she squirted past them and chipped a pass into Morgan. Morgan’s shot banged right under the crossbar and bounced in for her third goal of the night. It also capped the fourth hat trick of her career.
“I feel like Jill’s kind of set a precedent of change in this team within a couple years, and she’s put a lot of pressure on the older players to continue to perform,” Morgan said. “For me, it’s just continuing to perform and to continue to get on the scoreboard. I feel like I’m doing what she’s asking of me. I feel really good in my performance tonight, and good in my performance in the last six months or a year really.”
But it wasn’t just Morgan who got in on the U.S.’s offensive explosion.
Megan Rapinoe, coming off her recent nomination for FIFA Women’s Player of the Year, added onto Japan’s misery in the 66th minute. She lost possession on her run up the middle, but off a deflection, she stole the ball back and fired a bullet into the back of the net.
Japan did poke some holes in the U.S. defense in addition to its first-half equalizer. In the 76th minute, Moeno Sakaguchi curled a screamer into the top corner of the net, too far for a fully-outstretched Naeher to reach.
One of the biggest questions heading into Thursday’s match was what the U.S. would do at left back, a position that has seen some controversy after Jaelene Hinkle was cut from the roster this week. Crystal Dunn started in that slot Thursday, and played to the liking of Ellis.
“Right now, it’s not a particularly deep role for us,” Ellis said of the left back spot. “When we rotate her (Dunn) up high, which is what we want to do in our build-up, good things happen. She has a free license to try to get high as possible. … And I thought defensively she worked very, very hard tonight. That’s a team that gives you a lot to deal with – there’s a lot of movement in that team, a lot to track.”
The U.S. takes its 4-2 win into the next phase of the Tournament of Nations. It will play Australia in East Hartford, Conn., on Sunday.