Fast Forward

Former Cal striker Alex Morgan helped America qualify for the Women's World Cup. Now she and the U.S. take aim at the title.

Anna Vignet/File
Alex Morgan scored a pair of clutch late goals for the U.S. women's national team last year.

Alex Morgan didn’t waste much time between her collegiate and international soccer careers.

In fact, there was barely a transition at all.

“It kind of overlapped,” the former Cal captain and current U.S. national team member says. “I was at a point in my junior and senior year where I needed to finish my school if I wanted to have a chance at making the World Cup roster.”

It’s not surprising how quickly Morgan solidified a spot, given her track record during intermittent appearances with the senior national squad last year.

Morgan’s first international goal, an 83rd-minute equalizer against China to save the U.S. from a 1-0 loss, came just 12 minutes after she was subbed in.

The moment that most directly earned her place on the squad, however, also helped earn the United States a Women’s World Cup berth. After an unexpected loss to Mexico during last November’s CONCACAF tournament, the U.S. was fighting for a bid in a deadlocked match against Italy.

That’s when Morgan came to the rescue again.

In the fourth minute of stoppage time, she gave the United States a 1-0 lead — and the leg up it needed in the two-game series to reach this summer’s tournament in Germany.

Morgan spent the following months watching tapes of Argentinian phenom Lionel Messi, among others, while preparing for the caliber of soccer she is now facing at the World Cup.

The United States’ youngest team member at 22, Morgan can also learn from Messi’s exceptionally early stardom.

Though both stars are competing in the highest tier of international soccer at a young age, the paths they took are entirely divergent.

“I wanted to make sure that soccer was the one sport I wanted to play and pursue through college and maybe further than that,” Morgan says.

“I was balancing three or four sports before and through high school, and finally when I entered high school I decided I wanted to start playing club soccer and commit more time to it.”

At the time Morgan was making that decision, Messi was 16 and already playing with FC Barcelona.

When comparing Morgan and Messi’s respective journeys to national team prominence, a look at the different worlds of men’s and women’s soccer is instructive.

On the men’s side, just five teams have managed to capture more than one World Cup since the event started in 1930. Many professional players, including Argentina’s young Ballon d’Or winner come from academies affiliated with the prestigious clubs to which players aspire.

Conversely, the arena of women’s soccer is an open playing field.

The Women’s World Cup is just two years younger than Morgan herself, with the first few events being dominated by Norway, China and the U.S. Since then, women’s soccer has created an atmosphere in which newcomers — both teams and individuals like Morgan — could thrive.

“There are still five tops that have been there for a decade or so, but you have teams creeping up there that weren’t even in the top 10 before,” Morgan says. “It all just goes back to kind of putting a little bit more financial support and focus into the women’s programs.”

Women’s soccer has received that support in the past, most prominently after America claimed the 1999 World Cup at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. Iconic players like Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Brandi Chastain graced the covers of almost every major publication — as well as advertisements, from Wheaties, to Nike, to Gatorade and back.

That success snowballed into the women’s first American professional league — the WUSA — in 2000. Things went went less smoothly from there, however. The national team fell short in the World Cup semifinals to Germany in the summer of 2003, and the WUSA folded that September. And after winning gold at the 2004 Olympics, Hamm and Chastain retired, along with Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett.

The national team was at a crossroads, learning to play without the veteran leadership on which it had relied for so long. The U.S. faced up-and-coming teams like Brazil, which defeated America 4-0 in the 2007 World Cup semifinal.

Yet, the possibilities presented by 1999’s dramatic victory are still on the back of the young team’s mind. For Morgan and her teammates, there is a lot at stake this summer.

“I obviously want to to win a World Cup gold medal and make the Olympic roster,” Morgan says. “In a broader sense, I want to help gain attention from Americans and the U.S. and gain supporters that way.”

As the first overall draft pick in the Women’s Professional Soccer league, Morgan’s career depends on drumming up that support on the international field. Since her graduation last fall, the Bears’ former striker has lived in world that revolved around soccer.

“When I was a student-athlete, I would need to balance my soccer life and my personal life, not every semester would focus on soccer work,” she says. “Now this is your job, so when you’re going to practice, you need to focus 100 percent on that practice and get yourself mentally prepared every day for those practices and games because your job does depend on it.”

The Diamond Bar, Calif.  native has prepared for the World Cup so much that she has yet to spend more than a week in Buffalo, N. Y., where she plays with the Western New York Flash.

“My team here (the national team) has been amazing” she says. “I call them my second family because we’re with each other more than our own families and friends back home, and I’ve really been able to learn and gain a lot from being with them.”

Morgan and her “second family” represent a second generation of sorts for American women’s soccer. They are looking to fill the exceptionally large cleats of the 90s national team.

“There is definitely a lot of pressure on us to do well,” Morgan says, “but I think we thrive off of pressure, and we’ve done well dealing with pressure in the past.”

Her past goals with the national team have demonstrated that Morgan can play under heat, particularly since she has always come off the bench to score them. The ability to finish when it really matters is not surprising given her career at Cal, where she was the top scorer in each of her four seasons and finished third all-time in points.

Pressure, however, has become a buzz word surrounding the national team’s World Cup campaign. As one of the last to qualify, the squad is taking to the field to answer questions about its ability to compete internationally.

“We’re not scared of the pressure,” Morgan says. “We’re kind of trying to embrace it, and just excited to get over to Germany and see what we can produce out of it.”

The United States has won their first two games of group play, but the heat isn’t on just yet.

Having already advanced to the quarterfinals, America closes out group play against Sweden — an international contender for the past decade.

Their performance in Germany will determine how Morgan and her team are seen in the next one.