Alex Morgan Bringing Game (And Fun) To East Hartford

U.S. National Soccer Team Plays France Thursday At Rentschler Field

U.S. Women's Soccer

On Monday night, Alex Morgan, left, and teammates Sydney Leroux and Kelley O'Hara stand outside Dish in Hartford. (USsoccer.com) (ussoccer.com / June 18, 2014)

EAST HARTFORD — From Sao Paulo to Fenway Park, empirical analytics is everything in sports these days. So we don't need an opinion from Alex Morgan, we need a metric.

Alex, on the scale of one to 10 — one being football is played only on autumn weekends in helmets after a cholesterol-busting BBQ tailgate, and 10 you'd make a Brazilian fan mainlining Kitanda Espresso look like a comatose flatliner — how would you rank yourself as a World Cup futbol fan?

"The most is 10?" Morgan said Wednesday as the U.S. women's national soccer team prepared for its second friendly against France at Rentschler Field Thursday at 7:30 p.m. "I'd say 10 considering I haven't missed one game this World Cup yet."

OK, you saw the Americans in their opening game. That's nice. No, no, Morgan corrected: All the games from the Brazil-Croatia opener to Chile closing out Spain's chances.

"Our team has been pretty adamant about watching every game," Morgan said. "Right when we get done with training, we watch it in the bus, on our phones. When we get home we watch it on TV. We even take naps at halftime when we need to. We're big World Cup fans."

If you happened to be walking on Main Street in downtown Hartford on Monday, you might have gotten a glimpse how big. Yes, that was Morgan in a red tutu, Kelley O'Hara in a white tutu and Sydney Leroux in a blue tutu en route to Dish Bar & Grill to watch the USA beat Ghana, 2-1.

"We wanted to dress up for the game to have a little more USA spirit," Morgan said. "So we went to a local store, picked up some stuff and put together outfits in 30 minutes. We had been given jerseys for the game.

"We decided to have some fun with it and support the team. We feel a lot of pride knowing we'd been in that position three years ago."

So the three were in tutus, suspenders, bandanas and big, plastic star glasses. They painted USA on their knuckles. Not surprisingly, the photos on Twitter and Instagram went viral. As the team ate its meal and watched the game on big screens, from the early goal by Clint Dempsey to Andre Ayew's score to the winner by John Brooks, the emotional highs and lows of a 2-1 game and tutus were captured for posterity by ESPN cameras.

"It's sort of silly seeing us like that," Morgan said. "You probably wouldn't expect members of the women's national team in tutus, but we're proud of our guys."

Morgan is into the World Cup. She even knew the Hartford-New Haven market was running fourth overall in national television ratings, including third for the U.S.-Ghana game. Our Nutmeg combination of immigrants and suburbanites loves the World Cup.

"Yeah, I saw in an article that Connecticut was one of the top for TV ratings — that's awesome," said Morgan, originally from Southern California. "Since I've been on the team the last five years, we've come here four-five times, and every time there's a great showing. People get pumped for us."

Last October while practicing with the national team, Morgan sustained what she thought was a sprained left ankle. It turned out to be a stress reaction, resulting in a seven-month layoff. She played 90 minutes in her return with the Portland Thorns of the NWSL on June 8 and entered during the 49th minute in the Americans' 1-0 victory over France in Tampa, Fla., Saturday.

"Alex is further along than I thought she'd be; I'm really excited where she is," said coach Jill Ellis, who will be without goalie Hope Solo against France because of personal reasons. "We got about 45 minutes from her the other day. We hope to do the same. Obviously we want her back as quickly as possible, but we've also got to be smart about it and do what's right for Alex."

Morgan said she doesn't think about the injury anymore.

"I'm feeling really good," she said. "I'm focused now on how I can get a spot on the World Cup roster, get the most playing time and contribute to my team. I want to get 90 minutes game fit, be crisper on my first touch, get back in with the team and get to know the girls again, because it has been about six months since I've been in camp with them.

"Honestly, this camp feels the most together since the Olympics. I think we're in a real good place. With Jill coming in and really helping bring the team together, it feels good. It feels like it should one year out from World Cup."

The margin for error isn't much with the American women. Tom Sermanni found that out only 15 months after he replaced Pia Sundhage, who decided to return to Sweden after the 2012 Olympics to coach. Japan beat the U.S. under Sundhage for the 2011 World Cup, but the Americans beat Japan for the Olympic gold medal. Morgan, you'll remember, scored the dramatic goal in the 123rd minute to beat Canada in the semifinals.

A seventh-place finish in the 2014 Algarve Cup, including losses to Sweden and Denmark, led to Sermanni's abrupt dismissal. In steps Ellis and a formation change from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3. Many soccer observers, noting the depth of scorers up front with Morgan, Leroux, Abby Wambach (who didn't practice Wednesday because of her left LCL sprain) and Christen Press, see it as a wise move.

"Obviously, we played a 4-4-2 a lot with Pia," Morgan said. "Now coming in and playing 4-3-3, having that No. 10 player play right under the center forward is a little different. I think you saw glimpses of us doing well in that formation the other day, but we're working on it a lot and I look forward to us almost being flawless.

"It doesn't come without a lot of video work, coaching from Jill, from [assistant] Tony Gustavsson. We're learning our roles in each position."

France, a strong transition team, is ranked fourth in the world and is a quality measuring stick heading into World Cup qualifying in October. Ellis was pleased with the transition defense in Tampa.

"We played a lot underneath and worked to get a good defensive shape and keep a good tempo," Ellis said. "Now I'd like to see us to get a little more penetration.

"Regardless of how you align the player, it's how you want to play within that alignment. The more we're connected — that's the theme — connecting not just with passes but with information and communication on the field and really feeling we're one unit out there."

With 1.4 million Twitter and 500,000 Instagram followers, Morgan has no shortage of communication off the field. And if we could boil the hundreds and hundreds of messages she gets down to two sentences, they'd be "I want to be you" and "Don't do it!" Every 14-year-old girl in America wants to be Alex Morgan. Every 25-year-old guy in America wants to marry Alex Morgan and is heartbroken Houston Dynamo midfield Servando Carrasco is the one engaged to be married to Morgan. If my high school Spanish is correct, Servando Carrasco translates to "Luckiest Man In The World."

Morgan graduated early from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in political economy. She has a ton of athletic honors. Twice she has been in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. She has written a series of best-selling middle-school books, "The Kicks." How does she stay humble?

"My family and my fiance and my team keep me grounded," Morgan said. "We're thankful for being in the position we are, and I feel we have a huge responsibility as professional soccer players."

And with that, back to the World Cup. A few hours later, Morgan was tweeting that her bracket is so messed up after Chile eliminated Spain.

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