Morgan: I’m playing the best football of my career

  • Alex Morgan has starred for USA during a stellar 2018

  • She has become a team captain and is closing in on her 100th goal

  • Morgan spoke to ahead of Saturday’s France 2019 Draw

Alex Morgan has long been one of women’s football’s biggest stars. But now, aged 29 and approaching her third FIFA Women’s Women’s World Cup™, she is dazzling brighter than ever.

Morgan’s stats for this year make that case eloquently enough. From 19 international appearances in 2018, she has emerged with 18 goals and three assists. And whenever the stakes soared, so too did the performance levels of USA’s big-game player.

Just think back to October’s CONCACAF Women’s Championship, when World Cup spots and a continental title were on the line. Morgan was unstoppable, scoring seven goals in five games – three of which came in the semi-finals and final - to secure the competition’s Golden Boot and inspire a near-flawless campaign from her team.

The striker’s scintillating form has been a key factor in the world champions emerging from a slump that followed their World Cup triumph in 2015. Now, with that transitional period behind them, USA are back to their imposing best, having ended 2018 unbeaten in 20 matches and without a goal conceded in almost 15 hours of football.

It was, therefore, an understandably upbeat Morgan who sat down with to reflect candidly on her and the team’s development ahead of the Women’s World Cup. Alex, 2018 has been a fantastic year for you and the team. After a sticky spell for USA and you personally, do you feel the pieces are falling into place again? Alex Morgan: Definitely. We knew after the Olympics didn’t go the way we wanted that it was important to rebuild and gel again as a team. The next year was all about that rebuild and the coaching staff integrating new talent, giving young players opportunities to become a real part of the team. Although our performances suffered during that period, and frustrating as that was, I think it was a really important step in getting us to where we are today. Right now, we are in a really great place and I couldn’t be happier with how it has gone. We’re not perfect, and there are a couple of pieces to add to the puzzle, so the next six months will be vital in that respect. But I’m confident that we’ll come out of that period in great shape.

You’re in fantastic form personally, averaging a goal-a-game. At 29, you’re also now in the traditional peak years for a footballer. Are we currently seeing the best football you’ve ever produced? The last year has definitely been really fun for me, especially at international level. I’m really happy where I am on this team right now and I feel my role is greater than it ever has been. I’ve enjoyed becoming a captain and I’ve embraced that. So yeah, I feel like I’m playing the best football of my career so far. That being said, I’m also always looking for improvements and I definitely feel that I still have more to give.

You mention becoming one of the team’s captains. How natural has that been for you, moving into a leadership role on and off the field? It’s a good question and the honest answer is that I don’t know. When your role changes, I think you just adapt naturally and gain extra strengths to enable you to speak up and take on extra responsibility. But whether it’s something I would have gravitated naturally towards, I’m not sure.

Was there a general sense of feeling a need to step up and take on more responsibility, and be more vocal or assertive, after Abby Wambach retired? Abby left a really large void, there’s no getting away from that. She carried the voice of an entire team and she had such a presence about her just entering a room. Her absence was definitely felt, put it that way. But the team evolved from there and, while I wouldn’t say anyone has exactly the role Abby had, everyone has embraced the role that they needed to take on to make this team work. That’s not to say that someone with an Abby-type personality wouldn’t come in and be embraced by us. There just isn’t anyone like her on the team right now, and I’m not sure there ever will be.

You’re just now two goals away from your 100th for USA. Do those kind of records motivate you? I think I’ve found that what works for me is not necessarily what works for everyone else. I remember hearing something about Zlatan, who plays with my husband (Morgan is married to Servando Carrasco, a team-mate of Ibrahimovic’s at LA Galaxy). Apparently he has a photographic memory and can remember exactly how all his goals happened: who passed to him, where it was and so on. I’m not that kind of player or person. I don’t think about the goals I’ve scored or the goals I’m going to score. I always find that when I’m focused completely on the team and not thinking about scoring, that’s when goals come a lot easier.

Today is the tenth anniversary of your goal in the final of the 2008 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, when many people began sitting up and taking notice of you. Does it feel like a decade ago, and what are your memories of it? It feels like longer! But that tournament was amazing. I have such good memories of it as it was my first big competition with any national team. It was a really fun and exciting time for me because, before then, I hadn’t really been looked upon as that forward who could be counted on to get the team goals. It was also when I was seen by Pia [Sundhage, then USA national coach], who brought me into the senior set-up the next year. So that was a really important tournament in my career.

You’re now coming up for your third senior World Cup, and you’ll know the host country better than many of your team-mates from your stint with Lyon. How do you reflect on that experience now? I loved it. It was an important step for me to find a different style and maybe even find my love for football again by challenging myself in a way I hadn’t done before. Obviously it’s a challenge to stay in the US team because of all the talent we have – you always feel you could lose your spot at any moment if you’re not giving your best every day. But going to Lyon and playing with a lot of the best players in their respective national teams was a great test for me, and a fantastic experience. It was difficult to adjust at first and I knew I had to accelerate everything because I only had a short time there. But I really loved it and felt I got out of it exactly what I needed.

Does it make you all the more positive about what France will be like as Women’s World Cup hosts? It definitely makes it more exciting for me that the semi-final and final will be played in Lyon. It’s a fantastic stadium and a great city – I lived right in the centre for six months – so getting back there for those matches is definitely a big target. And I know France is going to put on an amazing tournament because women’s football there is just continuing to grow and grow.

There has been a lot of talk about the ‘curse of champions’ given the recent record of holders at the men’s World Cup in particular, and the struggle to rediscover the same hunger second time around. Is that a challenge for the US, and something you’ve considered at all, going into next year? I think it’s natural that among the veteran players in the squad, we still have vivid and very fond memories of 2015. It was such an incredible time for all of us and we’ll never forget it. But I’m not too concerned in this team’s case because there has been such a big turnover of players since 2015. For so many in our squad, this will be their first World Cup and those new players bring a youthful energy that, speaking as a veteran, is really contagious. I can see the concern but, while the public and media might see us as ‘defending’ this title, for us it’s a totally new challenge with a new team and a new dynamic. Hunger won’t be an issue.