A healthy Alex Morgan makes a statement in Olympic opener
With a goal in the U.S. women's opener in Brazil, Alex Morgan proclaimed that she's poised for another Olympic outburst.
Morgan, finally healthy after a few years with various injury battles, scored in the team's 2-0 victory over New Zealand in the opening group stage match in Belo Horizonte.
The reigning World Cup champion U.S. team faces France on Saturday at Mineirao Stadium as the Olympic tournament continues. The top-ranked Americans are seeking their fourth straight gold medal in the sport, and fifth overall.
Both the U.S. and No. 3 France sit atop their group with wins. Les Bleues defeated Colombia 4-0 in their opener.
''For me the injuries kept me from progressing, it kind of kept me a little bit at a standstill because I wasn't able to work on the things that I felt like made me more of a complete forward,'' she said. ''So once the injuries left me last year I felt like I was actually able to focus on the small details to help me improve on the big stage.''
Morgan's star rose quickly following the 2011 World Cup in Germany. At 22, she was the youngest player on the U.S. World Cup team, becoming a super sub and scoring a goal and an assist in the final against Japan.
She really broke through in 2012, with an impressive 28 goals and 21 assists. Her big moment came at the 2012 London Games, when her extra-time game-winner in the semifinals against Canada sent the U.S. into the final against Japan. Incidentally, during group play in London, Morgan also scored a pair of goals against France.
But she has struggled with a few inopportune injures over the past three years. Late in 2013, she injured her left ankle during training camp, then injured it again during the team's CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament in 2014.
She was hampered by a bone bruise in her knee before last year's World Cup and was eased back into the lineup cautiously, used as a sub in the first two matches in Canada.
Following the World Cup, she had a minor procedure on her right knee.
So far she's had a fantastic 2016 with 12 goals - her first year in double figures since 2012. Among the goals was a stoppage-time game-winner against France during the She Believes Cup.
Morgan's role has changed in the absence of prolific striker Abby Wambach, who retired late last year. Coach Jill Ellis said before the Olympics that she'd be asking more from Morgan.
''She's healthy, she's fit, she's mentally in a good place, she's scoring goals, and so I think it's a lot of similar feelings in terms of how she felt in 2012 to now,'' Ellis said. ''But in her game I think she has grown in terms of her movement, her running off the ball, her timing, her touch. I think she's making strides in that area.''
Morgan's latest goal came 34 seconds into the second half Wednesday against New Zealand. After reigning World Player of the Year Carli Lloyd put the Americans ahead with a header in the ninth minute, Morgan padded the lead with a low left-footed shot off a quick pass from Morgan Brian.
It was Morgan's fifth Olympic goal, pulling her into third place with Mia Hamm and Tiffany Milbrett. Lloyd leads the current Olympians with seven.
The United States is now 15-0-1 in 2016. Morgan's 12 goals, which lead the team, are the result of hard work.
''My first couple of steps, my finishing in the box - those were some of the things I focused on a little more. I did some more personal training. It was a combination of things I was able to improve over the course of six to eight months,'' she said. ''So finally I'm seeing everything paying off from being injury free and healthy and being able to work on the small details. It feels really good.''
Morgan said Friday she feels like this season may turn out even better than 2012.
''I feel like I've surpassed anywhere I've been in the past, whether that's in 2011 or 2012 and I feel more like a complete player,'' she said. ''Hopefully this tournament will show that.''