Reinvented: How a red-hot Alex Morgan is reclaiming her place in U.S. soccer

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The USWNT star was self-critical, knowing she needed to improve. Now, she looks like her old, record-setting self.

When Alex Morgan left for France this winter, she did so hoping her game would evolve. The subtext of that goal: The skills which led her to superstardom were no longer enough.

Her starting job with the U.S. women's national team in doubt, Morgan set off for Lyon hoping the best women's club team in the world would help round out her game. If all went well, she would become as impactful in front of defenses as she has always been behind them. She would return to the National Women's Soccer League as a more complete forward.

The best part about all those accomplishments, though? Morgan is doing what she said she would. She called her shot.

Thus far, the results speak for themselves. Eleven games into her Orlando Pride return, Morgan has nine goals, three assists, an often breathtaking partnership with one of the world’s best players (Marta), August's Player of the Month honor and a team which, having gone 6-2-3 since her return, seems destined for its first NWSL playoff appearance. So yeah, things are going well.

The best part about all those accomplishments, though? Morgan is doing what she said she would. She called her shot. No, she hasn't become some unstoppable, creative force dropping back from her No. 9 role. Christine Sinclair, she's not, but that's also a ridiculously high standard. When Morgan left for Lyon this winter, she wanted to get better at that part of her game. She didn't need to be a world-class player when it comes to holding up the ball. She needed to do enough to roundout her game. To this point, she clearly has.

Consider how many players would even embark on that act of humility. Morgan is the most famous player in the women’s game, and she has been going on five years, now. At one time, she also had a claim to being the game’s best, and while that status would be a stretch to claim now, her fame alone would justify staying the course. Instead, Morgan defied that renown, admitted she needed to improve, and decided to fight for her place among the world’s best.

The evidence of Morgan’s improvement has been there since her NWSL return, even before she began her scoring run, and even before many onlookers were convinced she'd actually benefited from her time abroad. Through those first 126, early-July minutes without a goal, you could almost hear the murmurs – detractors saying Lyon did her no good. But Morgan remained dedicated to showing her new self, contentiously and patiently taking her touches in front of opposing defenses, even if her relationship with the Pride's new focal point, Marta, had yet to develop.

Once it did, though, Morgan's production took off, with the U.S. icon averaging a goal every 83.6 minutes once she broke through. While it’s easy to describe that run in cliché, chalking it up to merely a good run of form, that sells the Orlando star short. It may be too early to say this is truly a new, improved Morgan, but it isn’t too early to give her the respect she has earned. This improved production coincides with months of hard work, and it’s a reminder that some athletes, even in the middle or late in their primes, still have the capacity to surprise us.

If Morgan sustained her new, staggering goal rate for an entire season, she would demolish league scoring records, racing past the 20-goal mark when the current record is only 16 (and counting). That alone tells you how unsustainable this production is, yet it still prompts the obvious question: What happens when Morgan cools off? What, to put it in statistical terms, is the mean we should expect her to regress to?

It’s tempting to say that this, or something close to it, could be Morgan’s new level; or, that it has always been her level. After all, at the beginning of her international career, Morgan was also this prolific, averaging a goal every 84.3 minutes from 2010-12. Since then, Morgan has slowed, and her career ratio (one goal every 105.1 minutes) is now on comparable with that of her main rival for U.S. playing time, Christen Press (108.5). Add in club performance, where Press has traditionally had the edge, and Morgan’s claim to being the U.S.’ best forward has slipped since the stranglehold she enjoyed a few years ago.

That’s another aspect that makes Morgan’s current surge so compelling. Not only is she doing it with a more well-rounded game and producing at a rate that rivals her early success, but she’s doing so outside the confines of the national team, which feeds the idea that something new has taken hold. If Morgan really was, as her trip to Lyon implied, more limited than she would like, it made sense that her U.S. success became difficult to replicate, not only at club level but also internationally, as the character of the national team began to change. If she’s now added more dimensions to her game, it stands to reason that she should be able to excel in a greater range of circumstances. Hence, her first flashes of dominance at the NWSL level.

What does it mean for the Alex Morgan of the future?

ISI Photos-Jeremy Reper

ISI Photos-Jeremy Reper

Now it’s up to Tom Sermanni and Jill Ellis, Morgan’s coaches with Orlando and the U.S., to determine if that new narrative is true, because the extent to which this new, improved Alex Morgan is sustainable will have huge implications at both club and international level.

For Orlando, having a consistent, elite scoring threat could ward off the ills of any of Marta’s potential age-based regression (which isn’t yet apparent), and it will keep the team from becoming dependent on the development of other attackers, like Chioma Ubogagu and Rachel Hill. This offseason, Sermanni can focus on improving his team’s quality at the back rather than adding more arrows to his attacking quiver.

Put another way, that’s the difference between having Alex Morgan, one of the most dangerous players in the world, and the Alex Morgan who, while good for Orlando in 2016, amassed only four goals in 15 games (1350 minutes). It’s the difference between a player who, at club level before this season, was good for only a goal every 216 minutes and a player who can be the main scoring option on a title contender.

An improved Morgan can have a similar effect on her national team. Though the United States could compete for any honor with the likes of Press and Crystal Dunn as the team’s main scoring options, the Alex Morgan we saw in 2012 was a truly transformative player. Her 28-goal, 21-assist season in 2012 still stands up as one of the most prolific in women’s soccer history, and it was no coincidence the U.S. went 28-1-3 and claimed a gold medal during her first season as a starter. Prior to her emergence, there were questions as to whether the U.S. was losing its place at the top of women’s soccer, and whether the likes of Germany or an emerging France could dethrone the Americans. Once Morgan emerged, the U.S.’ swagger fully returned. If her production also returns, the U.S. not only has a way to outgun opponents, but this new, more technical Morgan may be able to help address some of the team’s persistent tactical problems.

Thankfully, for both Sermanni and Ellis, there is no need to answer these questions tomorrow. Orlando still has two, potentially four, games left in its season, during which Morgan could continue her run. And for Ellis, there’s no reason to end her forward rotation, now, regardless of any one player’s form. France 2019 is still almost two years off.

That gives us plenty of time to appreciate the most obvious part of Morgan’s run: her greatness. Ever since the dawn of the NWSL, we’ve debated Alex Morgan’s true ceiling, with her struggles at club level living in contrast to prolific if diminishing international returns.

Now, Morgan is performing for her club, giving us every reason to think that the unstoppable phenom that helped the U.S. in 2012 could return. That’s not only reason to appreciate the brilliance of what she was, but it is reason to think there is more brilliance to come.

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