Sports

Alex Morgan Scored Five Goals in the U.S. Women’s Opener. Seems Like a Good Sign.

Alex Morgan celebrates after scoring her first of five goals on Tuesday.
Alex Morgan celebrates after scoring her first of five goals on Tuesday.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images.

For a minute there, it looked like Alex Morgan was going to blow it.

Not the game. That wasn’t really ever in doubt. The U.S. was a heavy favorite in its 2019 Women’s World Cup opener against Thailand and clearly in control, even when ahead just 3–0 at halftime. But Morgan was the bettors’ favorite to win the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer in large part because of her favorable group stage fixtures, and 50 minutes into the match, she had scored only one goal.

Brazil’s Cristiane had started her tournament with a hat trick against Jamaica. Spain’s Jenni Hermoso and Italy’s Barbara Bonansea had each scored twice in their first games. Even France’s Wendie Renard, a center back, was ahead of Morgan in the race for the Golden Boot. The Americans, meanwhile, looked determined to share the goal-scoring wealth. All three of their starting midfielders were already on the scoresheet, and coach Jill Ellis was preparing to bring on the first two in her Murderers’ Row of attacking substitutes: Carli Lloyd and Christen Press.

But Morgan scored a second in the 53rd minute, and Ellis left her on to play out to the game as part of a four-woman forward line. (Good thing. Who knows who might have won otherwise?)

Before the game had ended, with the U.S. up 13–0, Morgan would add three more: cutting back around a charging defender, hitting the far corner, then taking advantage of a mazy Megan Rapinoe run with a long-range finish to jumpstart her Golden Boot campaign from In The Running to Presumptive Favorite to Probably Taken Off The Board. She scored with her head, her left foot, and her right foot, what’s known in soccer as a perfect hat trick. Then she added two more for insurance, tying the record for most goals in a World Cup game.

There’s little inherent value to the 12th goal in a blowout victory, even a crazy juggled volley, but it matters that Morgan scored it. She had a disappointing tournament in 2015, the starting striker for the best team in the world finishing with just a single goal in 436 minutes. The U.S. overcame her lack of production—there are only so many goals to be scored in most games, and Carli Lloyd scored nearly all of them—but repeating with a misfiring Morgan in front of net would have been a big ask.

The U.S. offense is built to take advantage of Morgan’s strengths. She thrives on beating defenders to open space and finishing deftly. Her teammates, particularly wingers Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath, like to get the ball wide in the final third of the field, drawing out defenders and creating gaps for Morgan to hit. Sometimes this causes the U.S. to be too reliant on crosses, which may stall its offense against the likes of Sweden or France. Against Thailand, which struggled to keep its compactness throughout the game, those gaps were bigger than they’ll ever be. By the end, Morgan didn’t even have to move to find that space:

This U.S. team is the Big Bad Wolf, and this first test of the World Cup was a bunker full of straw for them to blow over, no huffing or puffing required. It’s not going to be this easy the rest of group play. Chilean keeper Christiane Endler made the save of the tournament and a whole lot more in keeping Sweden at bay for 80 minutes on Tuesday. And the U.S. has scored just twice in its last three Olympic or World Cup games against Sweden. Morgan will have less space to run. She won’t be left quite as open at the back post. Will it be enough to stop her? Not at this rate.