USWNT's Alex Morgan feels return to fitness, form with World Cup nearing

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LAGOS, Portugal — Alex Morgan can feel it all coming back now: The precise timing on her runs, the connection with her teammates, the breathtaking speed and the confidence that comes with knowing her lethal left foot can put a shot exactly where she wants it on goal.

Morgan has missed nearly 10 months in the last year and a half with ankle injuries, but she said she’s nearly where she wants to be ahead of Wednesday’s Algarve Cup opener against Norway (Fox Sports 1, 2 p.m. ET) and a World Cup that’s just three months away.

“You can’t really replicate a game that much in a training environment, so the only time when I can see improvement since my injury is in a game scenario,” said Morgan, 25, who scored her 50th international goal last month in a 1-0 win against England. “Against France [last month] I felt like although my runs were timed well, there were still times I took myself out of a great shooting opportunity.”

“Against England you saw it getting a little better,” she continued. “Through this tournament I think I’ll see myself getting back to where I was and even building on that. I feel good, I feel fit, and my ankle doesn’t bother me at all.”

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That’s good news for a U.S. team that has lost twice in the last three months (to France and Brazil)—and also for Morgan, who went down in a heap during the World Cup qualifying tournament in October, re-injuring the ankle that kept her out for seven months not long before that. The timing for Morgan’s return has been good, though, and she says she has been working on taking 50 shots on her own after practice every day here in Portugal.

On Wednesday, sipping tea and overlooking the shimmering Atlantic Ocean at a five-star resort, Morgan sounded confident while speaking about the year ahead. Famously goal-oriented, she knows that her injuries have cost her much of the past two years, in which she has played in just 21 of the U.S.’s 42 games. And while her scoring rate hasn’t changed all that much, the overall numbers are down. Aside from a remarkable 2012, in which Morgan scored 28 goals for the U.S., she has yet to score more than six in a calendar year.

2014   5 goals in 7 games

2013   6 goals in 12 games

2012   28 goals in 31 games

2011   6 goals in 19 games

2010   4 goals in 8 games

“2012 was a great year, but I wanted to build off that, and seeing my stats for the last two years is very underwhelming,” she said. “You can’t make up time. It’s just learning to accept the last two years haven’t been my best with injury and play on the field. But I know I have an amazing opportunity this year to do something great.”

A lot has changed for Morgan compared to four years ago, when she was 21 and just about to play in her first World Cup (in which she scored in the semifinal and final). She’s a full-time starter now, and she has scored a lot of goals, and she’s recently married, and she has taken on more of a leadership role within the team. She knows exactly what she needs to do to be ready for the opening kickoff of the World Cup in Winnipeg on June 8 against Australia.

She also has an idea of what makes this U.S. team tick.

“Obviously, the games that we’ve played in the last couple months, we haven’t had the best record,” she said. “But I think this team needs a little adversity sometimes. We definitely got that, and I think we’ve shown we can move past that together. Even though we have a great team individually and on paper, we need to prove that on the field. We’ve had a lot of great talks with the coaches. I haven’t felt this confident with the team in a really long time, this motivated to be selfless and playing for the team. We’re in a really good place, and I think it’s coming around with perfect timing for the World Cup.”

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Not only is the team working hard, Morgan said, but it’s also having fun. She noted how much laughter has been heard on the training field here, as well as having team-wide scavenger hunts and a lip-sync contest. But she also knows this trip will be defined by what happens on the field. And for Morgan that means winning a group that includes Norway, Switzerland and Iceland and getting to a final against perhaps Germany, Japan, France or Sweden.

While Morgan was out injured, she began reading Another Way of Winning, Guillem Balague’s book on manager Pep Guardiola’s time at Barcelona (her favorite team). “In a way, that helped me to stay in the game and think about the men’s game and how I can continue to improve my game,” she explained. “It’s a good learning book for me.”

As Morgan’s beloved Barcelona starts getting its mojo back, she might be doing the same—and the timing couldn’t be better.