SHE DIDN'T have to do this. Mia Hamm is busy enough these days raising twin six-year-old daughters and a one-year-old son with her husband, six-time major league All-Star Nomar Garciaparra. The most famous U.S. soccer player of all time cherishes her privacy—yet here she is, perched in a luxury box above Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, beholding the Future as it becomes the Present. On a slate-gray April day in Soccer City, USA, nearly 17,000 fans are cheering on the Portland Thorns and the new face of the women's game, the heir to Hamm's legacy, a 23-year-old goal-scoring machine named Alex Morgan.
This is an article from the June 24, 2013 issue
Hamm is one of those fans, which explains why she flew here from her home near L.A., and as the crowd fills the stadium with European-inspired chants she scans the scene with the intensity of a radiologist poring over an X-ray. On the field Morgan is inescapable, a blur of movement identifiable by her trademark pink headband. "She's so dynamic and explosive with her speed and strength," says Hamm. "Then you see her getting a little pissed off when she doesn't score.... " This is not a bad thing. "It's fantastic," Hamm clarifies. "She wants to be a factor every time she steps out there."
But this isn't just distant admiration. Hamm and Morgan go deeper. Back in January, Morgan was living alone in Southern California and faced a month of training without a coach. After much hesitation, she summoned the courage to call up her childhood idol and ask for help. "I was really nervous, obviously, because she's Mia Hamm," says Morgan, who as a 15-year-old in 2004 attended Hamm's final game, screamed Hamm's name with all the other ponytailed hooligans and resolved to reach the national team herself some day. Finally, though, Morgan took a deep breath and pushed the call button.
Hi, Mia. I know this is kind of weird and random, but could you come out and train me and a couple of the girls?
Yeah, definitely. What are you doing tomorrow?
And so it went. Morgan organized the practice sessions at the StubHub Center in Carson, 30 minutes south of L.A. Hamm would bring her children—would even bring Nomar—and she'd lead a series of drills, often breaking to provide feedback. With Morgan, Hamm focused on one-touch passing, balance over the ball and one-on-one attacking in the box. Though Morgan has already scored an astonishing 44 goals in 66 international games, including two in a friendly win over rival Canada earlier this month, she's aware that she needs to keep improving as opponents design their game plans around stopping her. Hamm is helping her do that, and in the process she's connecting one era, that of the 1999 World Cup winners, with another.
"I learned so much from her," says Morgan. "It's been cool closing the gap with the two generations. With [the current] national team it's almost us versus the '99ers, which I hate. I want us all to be one team."
In all of women's soccer, only Hamm has experienced the whirlwind of mainstream stardom that is now sweeping up Morgan, a fresh-faced scorer with limitless marketing potential. Only Hamm can provide first-hand advice on how to deal with its possibilities and pitfalls. "She's been there before," says Morgan, "and she's kept her door open if I need someone to talk to—or vent to."
In the end, Hamm says, what Morgan does on the field matters most, and tonight's game in the upstart National Women's Soccer League does not disappoint. Midway through the second half, with the Thorns leading the Seattle Reign 1--0, Portland's Christine Sinclair makes a steal, then fires a low cross-field pass to Morgan, on the left, who races onto the ball at full speed, takes one simple touch and blasts a left-footed screamer across the goalmouth and into the far right corner of the net. It's a perfect example of what U.S. coach Tom Sermanni calls Morgan's greatest gift: her "predatory instinct," something that cannot be coached.
The goal recalls Hamm in her 1990s heyday, and up in the luxury box the legend stands and claps. For a moment, as the brimming stadium erupts, you can't help but wonder: Could Morgan do something that not even Hamm could achieve? Could she make women's pro soccer a viable business in the United States?
MORNING IN PORTLAND. Huddled over a steaming latte in an independent coffee shop, Morgan is a dead ringer for Marnie on HBO's Girls, with the slight difference that the soccer player's career is going about 10,000 times better than the TV character's. The Rose City is new to Morgan and vastly different from L.A., where she grew up, and from her adopted hometown of Seattle, where her longtime boyfriend, Servando Carrasco, plays for MLS's Sounders. "I actually started watching [the IFC satire] Portlandia to learn about the city," confides Morgan, who went to college at Cal. "It's kind of a toned-down version of Berkeley—and they love soccer."
When plans were announced in November 2012 for the latest attempt at a U.S. women's pro soccer league, nearly everyone assumed that Morgan would choose to play for the NWSL team in Seattle—but she was obliged to submit three choices. Meanwhile, Portland investor Merritt Paulson was in talks to buy into the operation. He wanted Morgan, and he had leverage: He knew that the league wouldn't exist unless he brought in the eighth and final team. Asked if he exacted any promises—say, being awarded Morgan—Paulson laughs and offers an exaggerated wink-wink. "Oh, no, no, no ...
"Look, when the owners put in their requests for national-team players, there's no doubt that Alex was Number 1 on everybody's list," he says. "She's a world-class talent, she's unbelievably marketable, and she has that package at such a young age."
Does she ever. During the 2011 Women's World Cup, in which Morgan scored goals in the semifinals and in the final loss to Japan, her Twitter following skyrocketed from 15,000 to 135,000, and now, after she helped the U.S. win the '12 Olympic gold medal, it stands at almost 1.2 million—by far the highest of any U.S. soccer player, male or female. (The closest: Landon Donovan, with roughly 892,000.) Morgan's followers include LeBron James; Brazilian soccer star Neymar; Mexican forward Javier (Chicharito) Hernàndez; FC Barcelona, which follows only 47 accounts; Mike Tyson; and Kobe Bryant, who picked Morgan as his first follow.
"I think it's pretty cool to expand this soccer world into other sports like basketball," says Morgan, "but it's just social media, so I don't read into it too much." That said, her accessibility on Twitter has endeared her to a whole new world of fans—no small thing when the next big women's soccer event, the World Cup in Canada, is two years away. Morgan's annual income has surged past $1 million, the vast majority of it coming from endorsements with brands such as Nike, Panasonic, AT&T and Coca-Cola. When asked what kind of company Morgan keeps as a Coke endorser, the first two names mentioned by Sharon Byers, the soft drink's senior VP of sports and entertainment marketing, are LeBron and Jennifer Aniston.
Star though she is, Morgan is not a Hamm clone. She has done some things that her predecessor would not have, such as pose in body paint for the 2012 SI Swimsuit Issue ("I wanted to help young women feel comfortable in whatever body type they have," she says) and walk the runway at New York's Fashion Week last fall. In the past two months alone, Morgan took a one-day trip to Chile to shoot a Bridgestone tire commercial and visited Gotham again for the release of her first effort in a three-book tween series called The Kicks.
One of Morgan's most remarkable achievements, however, may be that she's done all of this—Twitter, Coke, the modeling—without generating open resentment from her peers. U.S. teammate Abby Wambach, for example, is the reigning World Player of the Year and is just three goals from breaking Hamm's alltime international record at 158. But, far from sulking over Morgan's rise, the 33-year-old Wambach says she is her fellow forward's biggest fan, giving the younger player credit for extending Wambach's career through the 2015 World Cup. (Case in point: Last Saturday, against Korea Republic, Morgan drew the penalty kick on which Wambach scored No. 156.) In fact, Wambach calls Morgan "the face of women's soccer."
"Alex is taking on a different role [from mine]," says Wambach. "She'll have more of the mainstream popularity of being the pretty girl and being able to cross over to 15- and 25-year-old men—the Mia Hamm--like qualities that touch millions. But she's not just a pretty face. So much attention on women in sports is based on looks, but Alex backs that up with even stronger athleticism. I'd absolutely compare her to David Beckham in terms of her appeal. And this national team has kind of missed that element. We had a little bit with [goalie] Hope [Solo] on Dancing with the Stars, but Alex, being a forward, really is the perfect storm. She'll benefit women's soccer and women's sports in a larger scope."
And for a long time, it seems. Nobody on the U.S national team fears that Morgan will lose her desire to keep improving just because she has found success on the international level. How driven and competitive was Morgan while growing up in Diamond Bar, Calif., just east of L.A.? Consider this story shared by her father: Mike Morgan, the bushy-bearded owner of a masonry company, concocted an elaborate incentive system for his three daughters while they were in high school. Figuring that he and his then wife, Pam, would eventually buy a car for each child, they awarded points, representing dollars toward a vehicle purchase, for achieving specific goals such as A grades, being inducted into the National Honor Society, joining the cheerleading squad, making a varsity sports team and (whoops!) scoring goals on the soccer field.
The oldest daughter, Jennifer, wasn't a star athlete, but she fared well in school and earned enough points for a small Mercury sedan. The second daughter, Jeri, became a cheerleader and excelled in the classroom. She chose a Chevy truck. And Alex? "She almost sent me into bankruptcy," says her father, laughing. Combining honor-roll grades with accomplishments in multiple sports (basketball, volleyball, track and, not least, soccer), Alex amassed nearly 50,000 points and cashed them in for a new silver Lexus IS 350.
"The 250 is the standard, but she wasn't having that," says Mike. After finding only two 350s available on the West Coast, father and daughter flew to Phoenix and drove one back home to L.A.
None of which is to suggest that Morgan is a diva. Former U.S. captain Julie Foudy thinks that part of Morgan's reputation as a good teammate comes from her paying her dues and not complaining about how long it took former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage to anoint her a regular starter, which finally happened in January 2012. (Morgan responded with two goals and two assists in that first start, a 4--0 win over rival Canada.) Likewise, Paulson points out that he gave Morgan the option of living in a nicer apartment than her Portland teammates, at the club's expense, but she chose to share a modest two-bedroom unit with midfielder Allie Long. "I wanted to live with my teammates," says Morgan. "With Western New York [in the now defunct Women's Professional Soccer league, in 2011] I ended up living alone because my roommate got traded. And I never felt like I got to know my teammates, because I was in and out, playing with the national team."
Going back to that big question, then—Can Alex Morgan make women's pro soccer a viable business in the U.S.?—it's worth noting that star power is only part of the equation. Following the failures of two previous women's leagues, the WUSA (which collapsed in 2003 after losing roughly $100 million over three years) and WPS ('09--12), there are questions about whether the NWSL can be sustainable.
"It's really [a question of] what the market will bear," says Foudy. "So enough talk about 'you should do it' or 'it's a great cause.' It has to be about a business model that makes sense." And this time the model appears improved: The federations of the U.S., Canada and Mexico are paying the salaries of the national team players instead of the clubs having to do it. Morgan's team in Portland, for one, expects to be profitable right out of the gate, thanks to a league-high 7,000 season-ticket holders and a star-studded squad. But the challenge will be for the league's other teams—such as New Jersey's Sky Blue FC, which is averaging a mere 1,625 attendees per game—to approach that success. You can't build a league on just one franchise.
"ALL RIGHT," Morgan calls out to Carrasco in another room, "the game's going to start!" On a rare day off, the face of women's soccer is ensconced happily, quietly, on the living room couch at her boyfriend's house in West Seattle, ready for the kickoff of the first leg of the Champions League semifinal between Bayern Munich and the couple's beloved Barcelona. If this were a more rabid soccer country—say, England—the superstar forward and her heartthrob companion, a defensive midfielder who's emerging as a starter for the Seattle Sounders, paparazzi might be lurking outside. But this is the U.S.
Morgan and Carrasco have been together ever since their freshman year at Cal, where both played from 2007 to '10. "He sees the game so differently [from] his position as a defensive midfielder," says Morgan. "The things he says [when I'm] watching a game with him, I'm able to learn from him. It's a good balance. When we don't want to talk about soccer, we don't have to. But we both love the game so much, so we're fine having our lives revolve around it."
Says Carrasco, "One thing people don't see is how hard Alex works off the field. It's inspiring, really. It's one thing to get to the highest level, but it's another to maintain that level. She's already scored how many [international] goals?"
"I don't know," Morgan says coyly.
"Yeah, you do!" he shoots back, and they dissolve in laughter. "For her, moving forward, the main thing is to maintain that appetite. She's always been so hungry to be the best. As long as she does that, the sky's the limit. Her game in the last year has developed immensely in her understanding of movement. Before, she was just ..."
" ... go to the goal," Morgan finishes his thought.
" 'Just play me over the top,'" adds Carrasco. "Now she makes inside-to-outside runs. Last year she had 21 assists. That's because she uses her speed to draw defenders and unbalance [an opponent's] back line. It opens up space for the rest of the team. Her understanding of the game from watching more soccer has brought her to an even higher level. And she's only 23. It's scary."
Sundhage, who coached the U.S. women from 2007 to '12, says that her teams always had surpassing athleticism. But she started to notice a rise in her team's soccer IQ late in her tenure, as more young women such as Morgan, Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn became regular viewers of Champions League and English Premier League games on television. According to Morgan, players even asked Sundhage if she might consider scheduling practices to avoid conflicts with big European matches. "Last year, during Euro 2012, we had brackets, [which got] the whole team involved," says Morgan. "It catches on so quickly. Now I want to know starting lineups, every player's name."
Watching Bayern take apart Barcelona, Morgan and Carrasco veer into an array of soccer-related subjects: how to counteract a high-pressing opponent; how Bayern is forcing Bar√ßa star Lionel Messi to drop deep in search of the ball; and, as Bayern builds a lead, how Bar√ßa center back Gerard Piqué is taking a risk by moving too far upfield. "They're pushing numbers," Carrasco points out.
"They're going to pay for it," Morgan says as Bayern counters quickly and, sure enough, scores again. It's a rough day to be a Bar√ßa fan. "This is bad," she says. Bayern wins 4--0, and within hours Morgan is on the move again, navigating back down I-5 to Portland for the following day's practice session.
MORGAN IS entering a new stage of her career, both with the U.S. squad and with her Portland club. Years ago, when she was a teenager climbing the national ranks, teammates nicknamed her Baby Horse, owing to her coltish running style and her newness on the team. Morgan doesn't love the name—she's more established now and is showing more leadership, organizing off-season training sessions and team dinners. "The Baby Horse tag is going away," says David Copeland-Smith, one of her off-season technical coaches. "Now she's more of a thoroughbred."
In fact, it's easy to forget that Morgan is still only 23, with an entire career ahead of her. "I had to grow up really fast on this team because I came onto the scene right before the World Cup [in 2011]," she says. "I was introduced to so many things that I pretended as if I'd done this before. But inside my head I was like, Keep it together! I went from never doing interviews to doing 10 in one day and standing in front of 60,000 fans. Now people look up to me, and I'm seeing little girls wearing my jersey."
This is her life now. After the game against Seattle, an army of young girls masses next to the field in Portland. "Alex! Alex!" they yell, and Morgan dutifully signs autographs.
It wasn't so long ago that she was one of them, chanting the name of a legend, imagining she might one day be in the same spot.