After a rough April night in North Carolina, Orlando Pride and U.S. women’s national team forward Alex Morgan stuck around WakeMed Soccer Park. It was the evening after she was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people and there were dozens of fans clamoring for Morgan’s attention.
Despite the Pride’s 5-0 loss, the screams of young fans hoping to see the American superstar could be heard throughout the Cary, N.C., stadium.
Morgan obliged. During a World Cup year, she’s conscious of the impact U.S players can have on fans.
“We’ve realized the women’s national team has such a great reach and can have such an influence on the next generation and young girls, but I think it’s exciting to see how much more our reach has [grown] in terms of young boys, in terms of peers, in terms of other women in similar situations as us,” Morgan told Pro Soccer USA.
She is helping lead U.S. women soccer players’ fight for equal pay, which has merged with a global movement for gender equality. The empowerment theme has resonated and sent the Americans into their sport’s most prestigious competition with what feels like a potent wave of solidarity.
The United States begins its World Cup run Tuesday during a Group F match against Thailand. Chile and Sweden are the other two teams grouped with the Americans in the early stage of the tournament.
Morgan and the U.S. are looking to win back-to-back World Cup titles. Her role in the 2015 victory was limited due to injuries. Now, as Orlando Pride coach Marc Skinner puts it, she’s one of the most dangerous players in the world.
“I think when you watch footage of Alex, it doesn’t really do her that much justice,” he said. “I genuinely believe this: Her movement is probably one of the best I’ve ever seen in a forward. It genuinely amazes me.
“The timing of her movement if a ball comes into the box, she knows how to take a defender away and then come in [and] arrive in the space at the right time. It’s not a gift. I don’t believe in gifts. I believe she’s earned her right to know when that is and what to do. I think she’s worked at that.”
Morgan has embraced demanding workouts, living across the country from her husband and fulfilling extensive sponsorship opportunities intended to help grow the sport and supplement her soccer income that is limited compared to most male star athletes.
She doesn’t call any of it a sacrifice, but it has not been easy and is all leading up to a marquee month.
On and off the pitch, Morgan has worked to become one of the faces of the game.
Building a brand
Morgan’s profile has ballooned far beyond the soccer pitch.
She appeared in her first movie, Alex & Me, last year. She’s published a series of children’s books. She’s been in music videos, commercials and TV shows.
Time magazine recognized her in its annual Time 100 — she and Egyptian star Mo Salah were the only two soccer players on the list. The publication followed that up with a June cover story.
— TIME (@TIME) April 17, 2019
All of it is part of a careful approach to both playing the game and the stardom that comes with it, Morgan said.
“I think, initially, when I started with the national team and playing in the [Women’s Professional Soccer league] in 2010, 2011, I was just trying to soak everything in. Learn. Like, not along for the ride, but just trying to gain experience,” she said.
“From there, after a few years, I think I’ve really tried to take a calculated approach in the brand that I wanted to come into and the partnerships that I wanted to create with sponsors and with companies and who I wanted to align myself with and then producing content with the books, with the movie, with The Kicks TV show and future stuff.”
The seeds of stardom were there in college. Morgan attended the University of California at Berkeley, and her college coach, Neil McGuire, said there was no question Morgan was going to be a special player. When Morgan first arrived at Cal, she was still recovering from knee surgery she had in high school.
“In terms of her competitive drive, her willingness to do what it took to be successful, she’s one of the best that’s ever been,” McGuire said.
“There’s no question that of all of the people I’ve had the pleasure of coaching, Alex definitely has the qualities to be a world superstar.”
With a strong fan following, Morgan is now in a position to use her voice. She has opinions on the state of the sport in the U.S. and around the world. For instance, she’d like to see the Pride and the rest of the National Women’s Soccer League play a 10-month season rather than the current six months.
She’s also helping lead the U.S. players’ fight against U.S. Soccer for pay equal to their male peers.
“I feel like we fight for this every single day,” she said. “It’s not just [the national team], it’s women all over in their own industries. I think today there’s so much more awareness and recognition of those gender disparities and so I think in that way, I just feel that support all around. Not [just] from women, but men. Also, from companies, from sponsors.”
— Alex Morgan (@alexmorgan13) April 2, 2019
When it comes to growing the game and fighting for equality, Morgan turned her eyes back to the NWSL.
“Each club, each ownership grown has a responsibility to grow the game,” Morgan said. “When I look at clubs like Orlando and Portland and even Utah, those are ownership [groups] that are continuing to push both the women’s and the men’s teams to have an equal front and a shared, united front.
“I look at other teams like Sky Blue and there’s been so many talks about how they don’t have things up to standard and, if anything, they’re not going forward, they’re going backward. We always need to look at going forward. Getting better on and off the field. Doing more.”
She said Major League Soccer has a 20-year head start on the NWSL, and every club is responsible for helping bridge that gap.
Morgan’s life requires her to pounce on every opportunity, putting extended time with family on hold to be at her best during the peak of her professional career.
After the U.S. suffered a shockingly early exit from the Rio Olympics, Morgan decided to step out of her comfort zone and play part of the next season in France with elite club Olympique Lyonnais. It helped her take a big developmental step forward, but she had to leave her husband, dog, friends and family behind.
In the year leading up to the World Cup, she was constantly working.
For Morgan, there was no other path to take.
“I don’t know anything else,” she said. “I think I’m always been pulled in multiple directions, but I have a good gauge on that fine balance and making sure nothing feels overwhelming or too much at a specific time, especially leading into the World Cup. I think it also helps having a husband in the sport as well and my parents very involved and being so supportive. I have a really good support system.”
Los Angeles Galaxy player Servando Carrasco, Morgan’s husband, who she said got her hooked on crosswords, is a key component of that support system. The two have been married since 2014 and briefly lived together when he played for Orlando City. They now compete on opposite sides of the country, but Morgan said Carrasco is a steady source of encouragement.
“I think Servando is a huge part of what I want to put forward,” she said. “He’s always giving me advice. He’s helping me along the way. He’s helping me with confidence when I need a little boost here and there. He’s kind of like that steady person where on the field he’s very consistent. You know what you’re going to get from him. Off the field, he’s a great guy in the locker room. For me, I look up to him, definitely.”
Morgan also credited her U.S. teammates for their support.
World Cup goals
The U.S. is looking to defend its crown, but this year’s World Cup field is loaded.
Everyone knows the U.S. can score. It’s practically a given with the likes of Morgan – scorer of more than 100 international goals – Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe and others leading the way.
“I think that having been on this team for nine years and having that consistent core of players who’ve also been on this team like Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd, Kelley O’Hara — some of these players I remember have been there since the 2011 World Cup and possibly even before, I feel like we’ve really gotten to know each other,” Morgan said. “We know exactly what each other is going to do on the field and that’s definitely helped.”
— ProSoccerUSA.com (@ProSoccerUSAcom) June 8, 2019
The defense has lacked the same consistency, but the U.S. remains a potent team that can score frequently.
With a laugh Morgan said, “I don’t think [the forwards] ever feel like we don’t need to score goals. We always need to score goals, of course. That’s going to help our team.”
It’s a new World Cup, though. France is playing on its home soil. Australia is hungry and features experienced players reaching their prime. There’s a group of teams set to challenge for the throne. The Cup winner will have to survive numerous tests.
Morgan said she’s looking forward to the massive crowds that are expected at this year’s World Cup. Playing in front of the biggest crowds on the biggest stage is what Morgan said lifts a player to new heights.
“It’s exciting, always, to play for the national team,” she said. “You just always feel that extra piece of pressure and excitement.”