If there's one player who is both criticized and praised more than anyone else on the U.S. women's national team, it's Alex Morgan. At any given time, judgments on her performance for the U.S. seem to fall simultaneously on both sides of the spectrum.
When the USWNT's campaign for the Rio Olympics starts on Wednesday, the spotlight will be even brighter on Morgan. With strikers like Abby Wambach, Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez out of the picture, Morgan will be expected to carry the U.S. attack. But is she ready for it?
The constant questions about Morgan's form may come from enormous expectations she has set. She may always be compared against 2012, a year that, for all we know, could go down as her best year ever, the same year the American women won the gold medal in London. In 2012, she had her breakout and scored goals at a faster rate than one per game -- she scored every 82 minutes, to be exact. That is a rate any striker would love to have.
Her scoring rate in 2016 so far? One goal every 90 minutes. One goal per game may not be quite 2012 levels, but it's pretty darn close -- and very good. There are goals that came against some very weak opponents, but unlike some years, a significant chunk of her goals in 2016 came against the world's top teams, like Germany and France.
A question surrounding Morgan was what would happen without now-retired Wambach as her striker partner. The pairing was undeniably one of the best the U.S. has ever seen, with each player using their complementary attributes to set the other up and anticipate each other's moves. Morgan may lack the same chemistry with anyone else on the field and the U.S. no longer uses a two-striker system, but Morgan tends to help everyone around her, either through stretching defenses or by using her speed to make something of nothing. In her new solo role, Morgan can find space off the ball, chase down balls, and hold up play as needed, three things she has improved on immensely in Wambach's absence.
Over the course of her national team career, Morgan has notched a goal or an assist every 68 minutes, which is the best rate of any USWNT player with more than 50 caps all-time. Morgan's career tends to fall into a pattern of productive on-years, and quieter off-years, typically a consequence of injury -- and 2016 looks to be an on-year. As long as she is playing, she has never not been productive for the U.S. over the course of her career.
The problem with injuries causing perceived slumps is that injury has blotted her career over the years. Heading into last summer's World Cup, she had a touch-and-go knee injury that sidelined her right up until the tournament began. She eventually started matches during the knockout rounds, though she was clearly regaining her touch as the competition went on. After it ended, she had minor surgery on her other knee. In October 2013, she injured her ankle in a crunching tackle that she came back from weeks later, but it was improperly treated and eventually kept her out for the next seven months. In October 2014, she injured the same ankle again and missed another six weeks. Every time she returned, her finishing touch lagged behind. If anything has held Morgan back, it's been injury that has forced her to rediscover her form.
That's not to say there aren't parts of Morgan's game that are weaker than others. While her speed and work-rate are top notch, the U.S. has seen an influx of more technical players who can sometimes make Morgan feel like a holdover from a previous era of the team. Morgan has always been very good at racing in behind back lines, but "Route 1" soccer is no longer the main approach for a U.S. team that now also tries to dictate play by building from the back.
Ellis' progressive approach has only emboldened shouts for a technical striker like Christen Press to get the nod up top. Press was rejected by the national team earlier in her career and honed her game in Sweden, setting her apart from Morgan, who seems built for the USA's old direct style. While Press is the type of player who will often take several dribbles and beat a defender with skill to create a clear chance on goal, the American game still tends to move at a breakneck pace that is best suited for Morgan, whose goals often come from quick bursts and one-time strikes.
The technical, European-style of a player like Press may be where the U.S. ends up some day as the modern women's game evolves, but not today. The U.S. needs a player who can battle shoulder-to-shoulder with defenders on a quick counter or hold up play with her back to goal, and that's more Morgan than anyone on the roster. In Wambach's absence, Morgan has also improved her aerial game, becoming arguably the USWNT's best threat in the air.
For Morgan, her stardom makes her an easy target for critics. Over the course of her career, and especially on the club level, her huge star power has at times eclipsed what she has been able to deliver and what may even be realistic expectations. And the more she appears in commercials and photoshoots, the more critics claim she is more famous for her off-the-field celebrity than being good at soccer.
But for all the imperfections in her game and all the slumps she has -- perceived or real -- Morgan is still the best striker the Americans have. And unlike the World Cup last summer, when she was coming off an injury, Morgan heads into the Rio Olympics in top form. Morgan is primed to have her first breakout tournament since the Olympics four years ago, and if she doesn't, the critics will be loud and clear -- just like they always are.
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