Alex Morgan isn’t just a super sub, anymore.
Now, the 22-year-old scoring machine is putting a new face on the U.S. women’s national soccer team as it barrels toward the 2012 London Olympics — last stop, Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday — once again bent on avenging a disappointing failure at the Women’s World Cup.
With many of the familiar stars of the powerhouse team starting to fall away or near retirement, Morgan has been continuing to blast off a career that actually started in Utah and might not take long to rank among the best her sport has ever seen.
“She is unique,” coach Pia Sundhage says. “There is no doubt about that.”
And she will be needed.
While the American men failed to qualify for the Olympics for just the second time since 1980, the American women will be among the favorites to win the gold medal in London. But the team that suffered some worrisome moments in the past couple of years is going to need its ascendant star to actually make it happen.
“I wasn’t ready before the World Cup” last year, Morgan says. “But now, having that experience under my belt, I’m definitely more ready to take on a greater role. … It’s been a different world for me, and I’ve tried to embrace that.”
You don’t say.
In her first year as a regular starter, Morgan already has scored 17 goals for the Americans, who are 13-1-1 so far this year. That represents 25 percent of their scoring in just 14 games, and she has formed an almost magical partnership with veteran forward Abby Wambach.
The two have combined to score nine of the team’s 11 goals in its past three games, heading into its Olympic send-off against Canada at Rio Tinto Stadium — coincidentally, the site of Morgan’s national-team debut in a memorable snowstorm against Mexico in 2010.
All that, after a breakout performance at the Women’s World Cup last summer, where she came off the bench in five games and scored — along with Wambach, naturally — in both the semifinal and the final, although the Americans lost the title game to Japan on penalty kicks.
“Going into this preparation for the Olympics, I wanted to make a bigger impact in this team’s success,” Morgan says. “I worked really hard in improving small things in my game. … But it’s mostly all about my and Abby’s connection together up there and our chemistry as forwards, because that’s the most important part of finishing on the field.”
Sundhage “used a golf reference,” Morgan added, “and said that I have a lot of golf clubs in my bag and I just need to use a few more — take a few more out — during games. So I’m trying to use a few more of my clubs and be more dangerous.”
The Americans endured some rough moments on their road to London, while Morgan was still finding her place on the team.
Not only did they fail for the third straight time to win another Women’s World Cup, but they also watched their 52-game unbeaten streak in friendlies end with a 2-1 loss to England last year, and lost to Mexico in the semifinals of World Cup qualifying — their first loss to Mexico in 26 games — forcing them into a playoff series with Italy to claim the final spot in the field.
Not surprisingly, it was a Morgan goal in the first leg on the road that helped them through.
“Losing and having to fight through, and losing qualifying and having to go to Italy and those kinds of things — not blaming anyone was a huge tribute to us and how much we care about each other, and how much we truly do appreciate one another and the game,” midfielder Lauren Cheney said.
The Americans are the two-time defending champions at the Olympics, having taken gold in Athens in 2004 and in Beijing in 2008. For London, they were drawn into a preliminary group with France, Colombia and North Korea — three teams they defeated at the World Cup.
And who knows?
Maybe they’ll get another shot at Japan.
The teams have met three times since the World Cup final, and the No. 1-ranked Americans seem to be making strides. They lost the first reunion 1-0 in Portugal in March, then tied 1-1 in Japan on a Morgan goal in April. Last week, Morgan and Wambach each scored twice in a 4-1 victory in Sweden that did wonders for the confidence.
“At halftime, Pia said she gained a little bit of confidence and with a game like this heading into the Olympics,” Morgan said. “It helps our confidence as well. It helps us feel at ease with all this preparation that we are putting in. We see the actual results, which is such a great feeling, and we are exactly where we want to be heading into the Olympics.”
U.S. vs. Canada
P At Rio Tinto Stadium (Sandy), Saturday, noon
TV • Ch. 5
The U.S. women will play three group-stage opponents at the London Olympics:
July 25 • France
July 28 • Colombia
July 31 • North Korea