Sunday afternoon the United States women's soccer team tore our hearts apart after it blew two one-goal leads to Japan and lost in penalty kicks, coming up empty on its first three chances. Despite the loss, this U.S. team wrote quite a compelling World Cup story. Bouncing back from a 2-1 loss to Sweden, the Americans came from behind to beat Brazil in penalty kicks of their own. They then turned it on against France in the semifinal match, winning 3-1.
Over the past few games, those who watched the action saw the growth of a potential women's soccer star in 22-year-old forward Alex Morgan, the youngest member of the national team and a recipient of many Facebook/Twitter marriage proposals. Morgan came on as a second-half sub for much of the tournament, but her potential and dynamic offensive ability showed as soon as she was inserted into the lineup. Some wondered why she wasn’t deemed the starter, but the way Pia Sundhage utilized her reminded me of the way some NHL coaches slowly ease their young talent into the lineup and rotation before fully loosening the reins. In the end, whether Morgan started or not didn’t seem to have much of an impact on the overall result — U.S. was one win (or goal, depending on how you look at it) away from winning the World Cup title.
And on this day, the final against Japan, the Cal graduate was placed into the lineup at the beginning of the second half because of an injury to Lauren Cheney. She immediately showed she was a step ahead of the competition and had a penchant for finding the back of the net. Quite frankly, she was deadly in open space, shown on the goal she scored off a well-placed long ball from Megan Rapinoe to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead, and by the cross she struck to Abby Wambach to pull the U.S. ahead again, 2-1.
Morgan overmatched defenders for much of the match, and even when she wasn't contributing to the scoring, she was creating offense. The forward hit the post after she got free from a Japanese defender early in the second half and was just waiting to take advantage of a lapse on defense the entire time she was in. Early in extra time, she sent a shot wide on a chance that would've given U.S. the advantage. And she nearly had an open look at the net in extra time when she slipped past the defense but was tackled and drew a red card just outside the box. If the U.S. had won this game, Morgan’s star status would’ve exploded even more than it has already. ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle graded her a 9 out of 10 for the day, the highest mark for any American player, in a game that many called their best of the tournament despite the result.
At the end of the tournament, the precocious young forward had scored two goals — the other: a chip shot over the French goaltender to ice the semifinal game — and recorded an assist. She has nine goals in 24 appearances with the national team. And assuming the U.S. qualifies for the Olympics in 2012, there’s a good chance Morgan starts, or at least comes into games earlier than she did over the past few weeks. From what she's shown in the World Cup, her offensive ability should make her too tough to sit for as long as she did in this tournament.
While not many may be into soccer, or women’s sports in general, the beauties of a tournament like this are the storylines that emerge and individual performances we all get to witness in awe. People from all over were watching soccer, rallying together to with hopes of seeing this team earn World Cup gold. It wasn’t the finish we all wanted, but it was still fun. It’s been said many times, but let’s hope the casual U.S. fan appreciates soccer more from this tournament because it truly is a wonderful game.