Alex Morgan lands spot on cover of FIFA 2016

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Electronic Arts/Courtesy

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A big year for the U.S. Women’s National Team, which won the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, got bigger Monday when it was announced that one of the team’s biggest stars, Alex Morgan, will be among the first women to be on the cover of a game in EA Sports’ FIFA video game franchise.

Morgan, a Cal alumna, will join Argentinian star Lionel Messi on the cover of FIFA 16 games released in the United States. The women’s soccer stars who will join Messi on the game’s cover around the world are Christine Sinclair in Canada and Stephanie Catley in Australia.

FIFA 16, set to be released Sept. 22 in North America, is the first in the franchise to feature women on the cover, and, as EA Sports announced in May, this game will also be the first to include international women’s soccer teams. These announcements signal the rise of the popularity of the sport among the general public, and they may be a sign that women’s soccer is catching up to the men’s game. The final game of the 2015 World Cup — in which the USWNT defeated Japan, 5-2 — was viewed by 26.7 million people, nearly double the viewership numbers for the 2011 Women’s World Cup Final, in which the United States lost to Japan, according to Fox Sports. The match’s viewership also surpassed that of the 2014 World Cup Final, when Germany took down Argentina.

“It gives women’s soccer another platform to showcase the advancement in the sport,” Morgan told the Huffington Post. “It’s been incredible to see the year that women’s sports has had so far.”

The game’s decision to feature international women’s teams — 12 teams will be featured, including the United States, Canada, Australia and Germany, but Japan was notably excluded — could be a big step for the women’s game.

ESPN did a study in 2014 examining the growing popularity of soccer in the United States, especially among youth. In its study, MLS was revealed as having caught up to MLB in popularity among people from age 12 to 17, and the popularity of the FIFA video game series was seen as one of the driving forces behind this. Now that FIFA will feature women’s teams, there is hope that it will have a similar effect on the popularity of women’s soccer leagues, especially the National Women’s Soccer League.

Morgan, who plays on the Portland Thorns of the NWSL, just turned 26 and is considered to be the player most likely to inherit Abby Wambach’s mantle as the best player and the face of the USWNT. Morgan started the last five games of the World Cup for the United States. While she struggled at times with a knee injury and finishing goal-scoring opportunities — with only one in the tournament — her impact on the game could still be felt, as Morgan drew the defenders’ attention away from her teammates and made the game easier for her side. Given her status as one of the world’s most famous players, Morgan may be the perfect U.S. player to help this video game spark further popularity for the women’s game.

“I know people all over the world play this game and I’m really excited that FIFA 16 is putting such an important spotlight on women’s soccer,” Morgan said in an EA Sports press release.

Hooman Yazdanian is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @hoomanyazdanian.