BERKELEY, Calif. -- The fastest-rising star in American women's soccer was 10 years old on the day Brandi Chastain kicked, scored and stripped her way into the forefront of the national conversation.
When Chastain lifted the U.S. past China in the final of 1999 Women's World Cup -- electrifying the Rose Bowl crowd by striking the ball into the back of the net with a penalty and ripping her jersey off in celebration -- Alex Morgan was growing up about 25 miles away in Diamond Bar, Calif.
Tall, fast and already intensely competitive, Morgan already showed major potential on the softball diamond and the volleyball court. But like many of the girls in her generation, soccer soon became her passion.
"Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, those were the athletes I looked up to," Morgan said recently.
Now 22, Morgan has become a star in her own right. In 2009 she became the youngest player on the U.S. senior national team. Last November, she scored the critical goal that helped ensure World Cup qualification for the U.S. women. And in January, the Western New York Flash selected her with the first overall pick in the Women's Professional Soccer draft.
As the Americans prepare for the World Cup this June in Germany, Morgan has emerged as one of the team's most dangerous goal-scoring threats.
"She's fast, she's strong, and she goes straight for goal," U.S. women's national team coach Pia Sundhage said. "She comes in with the confidence and the expectation that she's going to change the game."
With a 93rd-minute goal against Italy last November, Morgan not only changed the game -- she changed the course of an entire World Cup qualifying cycle.
After falling to Mexico in CONCACAF qualifying, the Americans entered a home-and-home series against Italy with a World Cup berth at stake. In the 85th minute of the first-leg match in Padua, Sundhage inserted Morgan into the game with one directive.
"It was simple," Morgan recalled several weeks later. "She said to stay up top and get a goal."
Apparently, Morgan was listening.
In the 93rd minute, forward Abby Wambach received a long pass from the backfield, which she flicked forward with her head to a streaking Morgan. Morgan corralled the pass while running into the box and delivered a low and hard shot past the diving keeper and into the back of the net. Morgan's strike gave the U.S. a 1-0 series advantage and an all-important road goal. They finished off the Italians a week later in Chicago.
For Morgan, the goal announced her arrival as a likely mainstay in the future of American women's soccer. Her career has progressed on a narrow course at a rapid speed, as she's gone from unpolished recreational player to national team contributor in a matter of eight years.
"Alex has come on and really been like a sponge," national team star Abby Wambach said. "I see a lot of myself in her in the way I related to Mia (Hamm). It will be an exciting couple of years for her to see how she grows, but she's already made it this far, and she totally deserves all the things that are coming to her."
Morgan did not begin playing club-team soccer until she was 14, several years later than most players who go on to reach the elite levels of the sport. "She didn't have the experience of other girls, but her raw talent was so good," Morgan's father Mike said of his daughter's transition into the club game. "She showed that she could be an impact player immediately."
Before long, Morgan earned a call-up to the U-17 national team. She went on to play at Cal, and despite missing a number of matches to play for the U-20 and then senior national teams, she became the Bears' third all-time leading scorer. As a sophomore at Cal, she played in the U-20 World Cup in Chile, where she scored the
A year later, she was called up to the national team. A year after that, she scored the crucial goal in Italy.
Morgan's rise has been fueled by raw talent and unyielding determination, pushed along by a ruthless competitive nature. "She's the most competitive person I've ever seen," Cal teammate Megan Jesolva said. "You can't play board games with her. She goes crazy if her team's not winning. On one hand it's funny, but on the other hand you say, 'Wow, you're taking this a lot more seriously than the rest of us."
Sitting in a cafe on the edge of Cal's campus, Morgan took a break from studying for the last final exams she would ever take to reflect on her place in the women's game. Speaking in soft tones and precise terms, she seemed neither awed by her success nor entitled to the treatment stars are given. Instead, she spoke as an athlete confident of her place in her sport, as well her ability to rise even higher.
"Being on the senior national team was maybe a little surreal at first," said Morgan, who admitted to running around her parents' house and yelling when she got the initial call-up. "But you get used to it." She added: "I was never necessarily expecting to be in this position, but I always believed that I could be, that if I worked hard I could have that chance."
Throughout last fall, Morgan's allegiances were split between her college team, her studies (she graduated in 3 1/2 years with a degree Political Economy), and her national team training. She spent national team flights writing term papers, and her Cal teammates looked to her as an on-field leader, even when she had barely practiced with the team.
"She knew what she wanted to achieve, she knew she had to balance everything, and she took care of it," Cal coach Neil McGuire said. "She's always been a player who was destined to play for the national team. She handled the stress of everything remarkably well."
Now a college graduate and the face of an expansion franchise in a struggling league, Morgan stands on the brink of stardom. She has signed with agent Dan Levy -- who represents female athletes such as Sue Bird, Misty May-Treanor and Hamm -- and though she hasn't signed any endorsements yet, Levy said she's drawn considerable interest from companies.
"When someone has an opportunity to make an impact on the national team before even graduating college, people take notice," Levy said. "And her timing is important. With her coming on to the scene as we go into a World Cup year, there's a big opportunity."
Levy said he believes Morgan can emerge as a star even if the WPS fails -- "We've had women's soccer stars in the past without an American league," he said -- but her continued emergence will rest on her ability to make and contribute to the World Cup squad.
And if she gets there, Morgan's objective will remain as simple as its ever been.
"She just has to go straight to the goal," Sundhage said. "That's all we need her to do."