Only nine games deep into 2016, the U.S. Women’s National Team has already qualified for the Olympics, won the 2016 SheBelieves Cup, which featured four of the top five teams in the world, and compiled an unblemished 9-0-0 record while outscoring opponents 32-1.
Three players have played major roles in the scoring output as forwards Alex Morgan and Crystal Dunn, and midfielder Carli Lloyd, have racked up a combined 22 goals so far. The direct combination of Lloyd and Morgan are responsible for five of the USA’s goals this year, while Dunn tied a WNT record with five goals in a single match.
“This shows the depth that we have on this team,” Morgan said. “To see the amount of goals that Crystal has with the limited time that she’s been playing, not really starting every game, it just shows that any player can come in and make an impact. Having all three of us score this many goals at the start of 2016 is great. We can’t stop now, and it’s just exciting to see all of the other players that also started 2016 so well.”
With a team-leading eight goals in nine games, Morgan is off to her best start in a season since 2012, when she scored seven goals through the first nine games of the year. In fact, she has already surpassed her total from 2015, when she notched seven goals in 22 games.
Perhaps the most positive aspect of Morgan’s goals is not the number, but the various ways in which she has scored them.
In the U.S. women’s season opener against the Republic of Ireland on Jan. 23 in San Diego, Morgan, who was celebrating her 100th cap with the WNT in her home state of California, scored the fourth goal in a 5-0 victory. The goal came off an assist from Lloyd, and it came after Morgan had already assisted on Lloyd’s first two goals of the match. The sequence leading up to the goal started when defender Ali Krieger played a great ball from the right side to the middle of the box. Lloyd jumped up for the header but the ball bounced off the post. The opportunistic Morgan was able to tap home the loose ball.
It was a memorable day for Morgan and a glimpse of what was to come, as the combination of Morgan and Lloyd up front, which was critical in helping the USA win the World Cup last summer, continues to evolve.
On Feb. 10 against Costa Rica at the opening match of the 2016 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship in Frisco, Texas, Morgan scored the fastest goal in the 31 years of the WNT program when her strike hit the back of the net 12 seconds into the game. The play leading to the goal took a combination of three players, and the execution was flawless with every player completing the perfect pass. Directly off the kickoff, midfielder Lindsey Horan sent a long ball from inside the U.S. half to Lloyd who was about 30 yards from the goal. Lloyd flicked the ball with her head over the top of the Costa Rica defense to Morgan, who fended off a defender and struck a hard right-footed shot into the net from 10 yards out.
“Scoring 12 seconds into a game was just crazy because it was the very first game of Olympic Qualifying and it set the tone for our team,” Morgan said. “This team is a lot younger than 2015, and it’s a team that hasn’t had as many games together given the new faces. It was really nice to set the tone in the right way, and show that we mean business and players want to do the work in 2016.”
Morgan went on to score another later in the game, once again tallying the fourth goal in a 5-0 win with an assist from Lloyd. It was the duo’s fifth combined assist and goal in two matches.
“Playing a lot of games at the end of 2015, and now the first games in 2016 with Carli up front, I feel we’ve been able to learn a lot about each other and are to connect a lot more and just anticipate each other, and I feel like that shows,” Morgan said.
Nine days after her brace against Costa Rica, Morgan shined again in a 5-0 win against Trinidad & Tobago, scoring a hat trick in a crucial Olympic Qualifying semifinal match for the USA. The victory earned the team its berth to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
It was Morgan’s third career hat trick and first since Nov. 28, 2012, against Ireland. Additionally, the three goals gave Morgan a career total of 62 tallies, which placed her in sole possession of eighth place in the WNT all-time scoring list.
Following its 2-0 victory against Canada for the Olympic Qualifying title on Feb. 21, the WNT was quickly back in action as it hosted the 2016 SheBelieves Cup from March 3-9. Facing England, France and Germany, the USA played three low-scoring matches against stellar opposition and came out victorious in each of them.
As a team, the U.S. found the back of the net four times. Morgan was responsible for two of those goals, one each in the final two matches of the tournament against France and Germany.
On March 6 against France, the U.S. faced off against a tremendously talented team that had quality possession and created some dangerous chances, but the USA took control of the match in second half stoppage time with Morgan doing what she does best, taking off on a blistering run at the defensive restraining line. Seventeen-year-old Mallory Pugh brought a ball down skillfully at midfield and penetrated into France’s defensive half. Pugh slipped a perfectly-weighted pass into the path of Morgan, who made a run into the left side of the penalty box and at full stride crushed a left-footed blast past onrushing goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi into the lower right corner of the goal.
While her goal almost a month before couldn't have happened much earlier, this one couldn't have happened much later, but it was exactly what the U.S. needed and precisely when they needed it. It was also, as Morgan herself said, the ending the fans deserved after witnessing an incredible matchup.
“As the game wears on, I feel like the pressure builds and builds, so obviously scoring later in the game it’s so exciting for us and for the fans.”
Three days later, Morgan topped her SheBelieves performance, one that earned her the Golden Boot and Golden Ball, with the game-tying goal against Germany in the de facto SheBelieves Cup tournament title match.
In the 35th minute and down 1-0 after a score from Anja Mittag -- the first time the USA had allowed a goal in nine matches this year – defender Meghan Klingenberg evaded a defender and lofted a through ball into the left side of Germany’s box for a sprinting Morgan. Morgan let the ball bounce twice before lifting it over a defender with her left foot and sending a powerful right-footed volley into the net in two fluid steps to tie the game.
Whether it’s scoring in 12 seconds or 91 minutes, whether it’s one goal, a pair of assists or a hat trick, Morgan has done it all so far this year, something she attributes to strong preparation and really honing in on her fitness.
“I’ve started 2016 healthy and feeling really optimistic,” Morgan said. “Just with the Olympics ahead of us it’s been so great to play so many teams with the National Team before we start with our club teams. For me, I’ve obviously set goals for myself and part of that is just continuing to focus on what I need to get better at, and continue working on my strength and perfect it even more. Going into this year I feel like I put a lot of work into the fall and winter of last year knowing that that was the only time that I had to focus on myself. I did that by working with a personal trainer and coach, and it’s nice to see it paying off.”
Up next for the USA is a pair of friendly matches against Colombia in April. The USA and Colombia rivalry has intensified over the past few years as the two sides have faced each other during the big tournaments - the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the 2012 London Olympics and most recently at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup - a fact that Morgan and her teammates are well aware of.
“Colombia is a team that we may very well face in the Olympics given the fact that we’ve faced them every major tournament since I’ve been on the National Team, both in World Cup and Olympics,” Morgan said. “It’s great training for us to continue playing top teams throughout the world. Obviously coming off the success of the SheBelieves Cup we want to continue that, but at the same time, our fitness needs to improve and our quality of play on the pitch so the games against Colombia are another chance for that.”
The U.S. WNT returns to action against Colombia on April 6 in East Hartford, Connecticut (7 p.m. ET, FS1) and again on April 10 in Chester, Pennsylvania (2 p.m. ET, ESPN).