VANCOUVER, B.C.—The American roster for the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament is full of recognizable names like Hope Solo, Heather Mitts, Shannon Boxx and Abby Wambach, players who have excelled on the field and received plenty of attention off it. One of the names that may be most recognizable to casual fans isn't of a starter, though. Instead, Alex Morgan, she of the over 316,000 Twitter followers, crucial goals, visits to Entourage premieres and marriage proposals, is likely to again be coming off the bench. Will this be the tournament where Morgan can become a legitimate top player for the U.S., or is she more likely to remain an exceptionally famous spare part?
To start with, it's worth noting that Morgan hasn't particularly underachieved on the field. She's scored 10 goals in 26 appearances for the national team, impressive when you consider that many of those appearances have been relatively short. Moreover, she has substantial playmaking chops as well, as evidenced by the way she set up Wambach's overtime goal in the 2011 Women's World Cup final:
The on-field issues Morgan has faced in attaining a regular role are numerous. First, the U.S. has impressive depth up front, which is something that's out of Morgan's control. 31-year-old Abby Wambach has shown no signs of slowing down, and Amy Rodriguez has proven valuable as a regular starter. Lauren Cheney has scored plenty of important goals for the U.S., and up-and-coming Canadian-born star Sydney Leroux, the top pick in this year's Women's Professional Soccer draft, will be vying for playing time up front as well. The U.S. squad is the top-ranked women's team in the world largely because of their quality depth. However, that depth does make it more difficult for individual American players to see a lot of time, especially in a tournament where the stakes are so high and the margin of error is so small.
Another problem for Morgan is that the U.S. has gone to a 4-2-3-1 formation and a style that focuses more on possession. In that system, her biggest asset of speed isn't as much of a strength, and Wambach is the obvious choice as the foremost striker. That's not necessarily a reflection on Morgan's skills, just an indication that they may not be ideally suited for what the American team is trying to do during the majority of the game.
Morgan does have some control here, though. Depth and formations are all well and good, but the best players either find a way to thrive within a particular system or play so well that they cause their coach to change to something that suits their talents more. Thus far, Morgan hasn't done either, but that could change in this tournament. Keep in mind that she's still just 22, and she's only entering her third year with the U.S. senior team. Her play improved dramatically from her first appearances in 2010 to her Women's World Cup games in 2011, and it could take another leap forward this year. A strong showing from Morgan in whatever playing time she gets at this tournament might be enough to establish her as a crucial part of the American team in this summer's Olympics, and it might help boost her on-field stardom to the level she's already hit off the field.