HARRISON, N.J. — The Women’s World Cup starts in nine days for the U.S., and forward Alex Morgan, the biggest star on the American team, has not played in a competitive game for club or country in the last 49 days. Those are the sobering facts for U.S. fans after Morgan, who has been suffering from a left knee contusion, watched the Yanks tie South Korea 0–0 from the sidelines on Saturday at Red Bull Arena.
When the U.S. began its three-game Send-Off Series in San Jose earlier this month, coach Jill Ellis said Morgan’s absence from the first two games was precautionary and indicated her knee wouldn’t be an ongoing concern once the World Cup started. But after Saturday’s game, Ellis gave every indication that Morgan would not start the World Cup opener against Australia on June 8 and certainly wouldn’t be playing for 90 minutes in the early games of the tournament.
“In terms of Alex, we’re building her,” said Ellis. “Realistically, she’s been off for a while. So in terms of minutes, that’s something I think we’re going to have to build through the early games to be ready. We don’t want to blow her up too early in terms of physically being ready.”
Morgan has not been training with the team, focusing instead on doing strength and fitness work. On Saturday she did participate in some warm-up activities with fellow U.S. players, but she wasn’t available for selection in the game.
After a remarkable 2012 in which Morgan had 28 goals and 21 assists for the U.S. in addition to winning an Olympic gold medal, her past two-and-a-half years have been defined largely by a series of frustrating ailments: two ankle injuries and now the knee issue.
Morgan did not do any media interviews after Saturday’s game, but her teammates said they’re trying to be as supportive as possible.
“You can imagine, right?” said Morgan’s close friend Sydney Leroux. “I feel like a lot of us have been in that position, especially in these last couple months. I was there [with an injury earlier in the year]. And you have friends and teammates you can lean on. Obviously, I’m there for her, and it sucks. But we’re going to need everyone, and it’s going to take 23 players to win this tournament.”
Teammate Abby Wambach said: “Whenever Alex is 100%, we need her. We need her to win. And I’m comfortable if she doesn’t start games. I’m comfortable if she comes off the bench that we still are successful throughout this World Cup.
“Because think about it from an opposite perspective: Alex Morgan hasn’t played a single minute, and she comes on fresh in some of these latter games, whether it’s the second, third or fourth game. If I’m the opposing team, I’m scared as heck for sure.”
It’s true that the U.S. does have depth at the forward position, with possibilities for the two spots including Wambach, Leroux, Amy Rodriguez and Christen Press. But Morgan is the only guaranteed starter up top if she’s 100% healthy.
Right now she isn’t, though. World Cups can be cruel. They only come around every four years, and as an athlete you can only hope that you’re in peak form when the tournament starts. It now appears that won’t be the case when the U.S.’s World Cup starts in nine days. Morgan will have to hope that her form comes as the tournament progresses.