The last time Alex Morgan took the field against Canada, her two teammates on the front line were much different, and much older.
In that Olympic semifinal last August, Morgan exited early as the U.S. women’s national team’s offense failed to produce. It ended in a one-goal loss, the first time the United States had lost to Canada in over 20 years.
Back then, Tobin Heath (33 at the time) and Lynn Williams (28) joined the 33-year-old Morgan on the attack. This time, in the USWNT’s Concacaf title-clinching 1-0 win over Canada on Monday night, she was the oldest forward by nine years, with 24-year-old Mallory Pugh and 21-year-old Sophia Smith playing beside her, and Trinity Rodman (20) and Midge Purce (26) eventually subbing in with a few minutes to play.
This time, Morgan did not exit early, though the team struggled to produce in the first half.
This time, she was the hero, and her young teammates got to see exactly what it takes to win at the international level.
“She’s a winner,” USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski said. “She knows how to win big games. She knows how to perform in big games. She’s won World Cups, she’s won Olympics, she’s won big tournaments. That doesn’t come overnight. So for her to be on the field to showcase that, and to have Mal and Soph next to her, that is a big win for us. That’s a big win for this team and for this country.
“Those two are going to have to take it over, and what better way to learn than from one of the best?”
The opening 45 minutes were full of “what ifs” and Herculean saves from Canadian goalie Kailen Sheridan. Perhaps the best chance of the match came with a few minutes left in the first half, when a perfect cross from Sofia Huerta found Smith in front of the net. The pass was so perfectly placed, curving around the Canadian defenders, that Smith seemed surprised when it reached her. Her touch was too strong, and Sheridan ended up meeting her at the goal line. There was a bit of a commotion as Smith fell forward over Sheridan. Her body went over the goal line, but Sheridan and the ball stayed outside, preserving the scoreless tie.
Pugh has played in 77 matches for the USWNT, recording 24 goals and 26 assists in that span, while Smith has played in 20 with eight goals and three assists.
Still, the two don’t have nearly as much experience as players like Morgan at the international level. Since the Olympics last year, USWNT fans have questioned Andonovski’s roster decisions, especially when it comes to opting for veterans over younger talent. But Morgan has the experience, and just over two years removed from giving birth to daughter Charlie, she still looks to be in her prime.
“She doesn’t want to stop growing, she doesn’t want to stop developing,” Andonovski said. “She wants to expand her game in any way possible, and she has been doing that day in and day out.”
With 118 goals in 196 matches for the United States, the forward is forever etched into soccer lore. And when Rose Lavelle was fouled in the box with 14 minutes left in regular time, she had a chance to add another line to her legendary list of accomplishments.
“I could tell (she was locked in),” Andonovski said. “That’s why she played almost 90 minutes. If I didn’t feel like she was performing, she was probably going to come out early. I thought she was tremendous.”
Morgan had always been tabbed to take the penalty kick, Vlatko said, if the opportunity arose when she was on the field.
They stuck with the decision, despite the presence of Sheridan — Morgan’s teammate in San Diego — in the net. The Canadian goalie is familiar with Morgan’s tendencies, but when the ball sailed into the right corner of the net, Sheridan went left.
GOAL NO. 1️⃣1️⃣8️⃣ FOR @ALEXMORGAN13 #USWNT pic.twitter.com/PqqveKgftz— Just Women’s Sports (@justwsports) July 19, 2022
GOAL NO. 1️⃣1️⃣8️⃣ FOR @ALEXMORGAN13 #USWNT pic.twitter.com/PqqveKgftz
“Before the final, I did speak to Alex about how she feels about taking the penalty, because obviously she was going against her club teammate,” Andonovski said. “But she wanted to take it, and her answer was with confidence, which gave me confidence as well.”
As the ball hit nylon, the cheers erupted from the stands, and Morgan celebrated with her youthful counterparts.
The veteran saved the day after her squad missed several quality chances throughout the contest. But after the match, Andonovski didn’t dwell on the ones that didn’t go in, instead choosing to focus on the opportunities they did generate. At times, the front line looked faster and more skilled than Canada, which ran out virtually the same lineup the United States saw during the Olympics.
The way players like Smith and Pugh performed impressed Andonovski, who praised their improvement from the Concacaf opener to the final victory.
“I am very happy with the gradual improvements that we had,” he said. “It is very obvious that our team is significantly younger than the previous time we played Canada. We changed our lineup, five players in that starting lineup. Those players are going to be here for at least three, maybe four World Cups, so get used to it.”
Morgan is closer to the end of her USWNT career at this point, but she’s leaving the squad with plenty to remember her by.
Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.