Editor's note: for the first time ever, FOX Soccer has named only one person as the USA Player of the Year. Normally, this award is given to a deserving U.S.-based male athlete and a U.S.-based female athlete. But this season, the accomplishments of the gold-medal winning women so overshadowed the performances of even the best male contenders, the editors felt it would be unfair not to recognize those achievements. As such: we congratulate Alex Morgan and the entire U.S. Women's National Team. Morgan becomes the first ever solo winner of the USA Player of the Year award.
Alex Morgan wasn't supposed to become a soccer star.
Just as soon as she could catch things, when she was 3 years old, her baseball-loving father Mike signed her up for softball. "He really pushed softball on me," Morgan said. "Finally, I told him, 'You know what, Dad? I don't like softball. I like soccer. I like to run'". So Mike, who owns a construction company in Southern California, took soccer coaching and refereeing lessons. And he hasn't missed a soccer game of hers in as long as she can remember, including all 58 of her national team games, her college games and her high school games.
Yet whereas her fellow national team heroines Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe trod a familiar path to stardom, being discovered very young, sacrificing and spending untold hours in the car in search of quality coaching and competition, Morgan almost fell into it.
Her becoming one of the new faces of the U.S. women's national team, not to mention U.S. Soccer's Female Athlete of the Year, is mostly accidental.
"My life didn't revolve around soccer at all when I was younger," recalls Morgan. "It was very different from most people in my position. Yes, it was a dream from when I was a young girl that I wanted to be a professional athlete but I was never playing at a high level."
For all his enthusiasm, her father never pressurized her into taking sports seriously, and neither did her mother. They didn't seek out elite travel teams, private coaching or push her to find tougher games. In addition to soccer and softball, Morgan played basketball and was on her high school volleyball and cross country team. She wasn't even sure which she liked best. She had fanciful ideas about a life in sports, but didn't pursue it actively. "I saw that potential but did everyone else? Not really," she says.
"It was more about the fun," says Morgan. "It wasn't about what can I do to take the next step in this sport." She was working on her craft unintentionally though. Three or four times a week, Alex and Mike would find a goal and he would play in goal so she could shoot. "But I didn't do that because I thought that I could make more of an impact on my team but because I loved it, it was fun for me and what I wanted to do after school," she says. There were sleepovers and friends, the social life precluded by the serious pursuit of professionalism.
She'd only been playing competitive club soccer for a few years, previously enrolling in the much less formal American Youth Soccer Organization, before she was called into the under-20 national team around her 18th birthday.
And then Cal-Berkeley happened and the senior national team happened and the number one overall pick in the 2011 WPS draft happened. And then, at 23, Morgan broke out.
In 2012, the women's national team had another torrid year, posting a 28-1-3 (W-L-T) record while winning a third consecutive Olympic gold medal. Morgan scored 28 times and gave 21 assists. The former made her the youngest ever to break the 20-goal barrier for the U.S.; the latter was just one short of Mia Hamm's single-year record set in 2004. Hamm was also the only other U.S. player to ever go 20-and-20 in one year. Morgan didn't know that. And, by herself, she comfortably out-scored and out-assisted her opponents, who combined for 21 goals and 12 assists in 32 games against the U.S.
" Really ?" exclaims Morgan when I tell her. She didn't know that either. She's speechless for a few beats.
"Looking back, it's amazing to look at the stats," Morgan says, at length. "I don't know that I dreamt of making those numbers."
Nor had she expected them. She was a substitute at the 2011 Women's World Cup, where she seemed to have scored the World Cup-winning goal before Japan equalized and won the final on penalties. Morgan didn't become a starter for the U.S. until the fifth game of the year back in January, the final of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament. She scored twice that day, as did Wambach, in a 4-0 win over the Canadian hosts. The partnership was never broken up.
"To be able to get into the starting lineup, that was my hope," Morgan says of her mindset going into 2012. "Did I think, realistically, it was going to happen as soon as it did? I'm not sure."
Suddenly, she's the heir apparent to Wambach as the team's star striker, slotting into a direct line of succession from Michelle Akers through Hamm and Wambach.
Wambach, in fact, thinks Morgan will break the all-time U.S. goal-scoring record (which, too, is a record in all international soccer, for both men and women) she herself is on the precipice of setting - she's six goals behind Mia Hamm's 158 - and tells her as much.
"It was about a year ago," recounts Morgan. "I went up to Abby and said, 'Wow, it must be incredible to have such a goal-to-game ratio and score so many big-time goals.' She laughed a little bit and said, 'You know what? You're going to score a lot more big-time goals than I do and you're going to break the record I one day set.'" Morgan was understandably incredulous.
A year on, she credits much of the success she has had since to Wambach's unrelenting confidence and guidance. They talk often and Wambach sends her reassuring emails when Morgan is in a scoring slump. Wambach mentors Morgan the way she was mentored by Hamm. In that relationship, the mentee eventually usurped the mentor. Morgan could do the same.
At 38 goals in less than three years since her March 2010 debut, there's much scoring to be done yet. But to put into perspective the freakishness of the goalscoring pace Morgan set in 2012, she could eclipse 200 career goals in just six more years - by age 29 - if she keeps it up. It took Hamm 17 years to get to 158.
But that's only if Morgan can replicate the year she had in 2012. And that could hardly happen by accident.