Sometimes all it takes is a little competition.
The #1 overall pick in the 2011 WPS Draft, Alex Morgan has solidified her role has a “super sub” for the U.S. Women’s National Team over the last year. She has come in to matches midway through the second half to provide the spark, speed and creativity that lead to crucial late goals, like her 82nd minute strike against France in the World Cup semifinal.
But that hasn’t been enough. Since the World Cup, Alex Morgan fans have been clamoring for a chance for the young striker to prove that she can be a starter. Head coach Pia Sundhage has been insistent that Morgan’s style is made for the late-game spark, and that it wouldn’t be effective in a starting role.
Then came Sydney Leroux. The 2012 WPS Draft top pick turned heads last Tuesday night when she came into the second half of the U.S.’s Olympic qualifying match against Guatemala. Forty-five minutes later, she’d not only scored her first goal for the national team, she’d tallied five.
All of a sudden, the media starting questioning Alex Morgan’s future. Would Leroux get a starting nod ahead of Morgan? Who would be the first sub in after the half in the all-important semifinal versus Costa Rica that would send the U.S. to the Olympics, or send them home? It was Morgan, who scored a goal in the 89th minute to ice the 3-0 victory and the United States’ trip to London in July.
And in Sunday night’s CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Final versus Canada, it was Morgan who finally got a start, delivering a breakthrough performance, noted by All White Kit’s Jenna Pel on Twitter as an “electrifying turn [that] could win her a starting job.”
In a game that was billed as the toughest test of the tournament for both teams, with the United States the favorite but Canada with the home field advantage at Vancouver’s B.C. Place, Morgan came through to lead the U.S. to a dominant 4-0 win and a tournament championship. Both the U.S. and Canada qualified in the tournament for a berth in the 2012 Olympic Games in London prior to the match, but with a CONCACAF championship on the line and bragging rights across the border, nobody was sitting on their laurels in this match.
In the 24th minute, Morgan raced the ball up to the end line along the right side, then crossed toward the near post to a perfectly positioned Wambach, who headed the ball past goalkeeper Erin McLeod. The goal, Wambach’s 130th in international competition, tied her with Kristine Lilly for second on the all-time list for goals scored in international competition, behind Mia Hamm (158).
The Canadians said Morgan’s early opening goal ultimately led to the hosts’ undoing…
“It took the momentum out of everything, and I think it took the wind out of the crowd as well,” said Canadian striker Melissa Tancredi. “I think after the second goal I could hear a pin drop.”
Four minutes later, Carli Lloyd banged a hard shot from 25 yards out off the crossbar, but when it deflected back into the box, Morgan was in position to get it. Instead of taking the shot herself, she flicked it over to her left toward Wambach, who struck it in from short range to surpass Lilly for second place with 131 career goals. Canada’s Christine Sinclair, held scoreless in this match, is in fourth place with 129, one behind Lilly.
Morgan’s contributions did not end there. In the 58th minute, she took a ball over the top into the penalty box, then worked her way around two defenders and the goalkeeper to maintain possession and net the team’s fourth goal.
The U.S. finished the tournament outscoring their opponents 38-0, remaining the clear favorite to win the Olympic Gold in London this summer, which would be their third straight. Hope Solo proved why she is considered the number one women’s goalkeeper in the world by keeping a clean score sheet despite intense challenges from the Canadians, including three attempts from Christina Julien. Soon after Morgan’s first goal, Julien had an opportunity to equalize but Solo came up off her line and lunged for the ball, swatting it out of play. Later in the half, Julien had a one-on-one matchup with Solo, who perfectly positioned herself in front of the striker to block the attempt. Solo’s scoreless streak in the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament extended to 454 minutes, a new record per U.S. Soccer.
Your next chance to see the U.S. Women in action will be Saturday, February 11 as they face New Zealand in an international friendly in Frisco, Tex. More details coming soon to Aerys Soccer. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter at @AerysSoccer for more post-tournament reaction and discussion.