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Why Alex Morgan missed the USWNT Olympic roster

SportsWhy Alex Morgan missed the USWNT Olympic roster

For the first time in 16 years, forward Alex Morgan will not feature on a major tournament roster for the U.S. women’s national soccer team.

On Wednesday, coach Emma Hayes left Morgan off the 18-player roster for the Olympics this summer in Paris. In her absence, the U.S. will be without a previous gold medal winner, with the team’s last win from the London Games in 2012.

“It was a tough decision, of course, especially considering Alex’s history and record with this team,” Hayes said, “but I felt that I wanted to go in another direction and selected other players.”

Morgan’s absence can be considered in several ways. It is the end of an era for the USWNT. Some will see it as an overdue move to balance younger players alongside veterans. Others will argue that Hayes made a simple soccer decision. Above all, Wednesday’s move reminded us that no spot on any U.S. roster is guaranteed.

“Today, I’m disappointed about not having the opportunity to represent our country on the Olympic stage,” Morgan posted on social media following the announcement. “This will always be a tournament that is close to my heart and I take immense pride any time I put on the crest.”

Hayes declined to get into her reasons for leaving Morgan off the roster and a list of four alternates, which included Gotham FC forward Lynn Williams. Instead, she highlighted “what an amazing player and human that Alex Morgan has been” through her brief window of working with her at this month’s camp for two friendlies against South Korea.

“I saw firsthand not just her qualities, but her professionalism. Her record speaks for itself,” Hayes said. At the same time, she acknowledged the constraints of the 18-player roster, with spots for only 16 field players.

Morgan has leadership, having captained the Americans on the biggest stage at the World Cup. Her experience outranks every other player on the roster in terms of appearances and goals. So what kept her off the Olympic team?

It had been clear since the South Korea friendlies that the best forward starting line involved Trinity Rodman, Sophia Smith and Mallory Swanson, yet Morgan was still in contention for a roster spot. But her club performance may have hurt her campaign for a role.

“I’ve come from a club level and what I have learned is the best development is done at club level,” Hayes said at her first media availability last month in New York City, essentially directly addressing players through the media. “So go back to your clubs, play, compete, get healthy, and put yourself in the best possible place.”

Hayes has been consistent since taking over the job that performance and form matter in her assessment, particularly on the club side.

“There are players on the roster that are performing well, and the decision to take those players was one that we certainly deliberated over, but I think it’s a balanced roster,” Hayes said. “I’ve considered all the factors that we’re going to need throughout the Olympics, and (this roster is) one that I’m really happy with.”

After a few years with limited club involvement — she only played 10 league games across the Orlando Pride and Tottenham from 2019-2021, including a break while she was pregnant with daughter Charlie — Morgan had a resurgent 2022 season for the newly launched San Diego Wave. She won the Golden Boot by leading the NWSL with 15 goals, including 11 from the run of play. It was Morgan at her best — consistently setting up shots on her left foot while finding plenty of space inside the six-yard box to convert dangerous chances.

Morgan, who turns 35 on Tuesday, has also missed time due to a lingering ankle injury.

Her form wasn’t quite as robust at the start of 2023, but her place on Vlatko Andonovski’s World Cup roster was assured. She was a fixture in his lineups throughout the run-up to the tournament, and the hope was that she could do some thankless line-leading work even if her scoring touch wasn’t quite in vintage form.

Since the USWNT’s elimination in the World Cup round of 16, however, Morgan has struggled to score for club and country alike. San Diego has not hit form this season and dismissed head coach Casey Stoney this week. Still, a player of Morgan’s pedigree is expected to score even when the going gets rough. Instead, she has yet to find the back of the net in 2024, midway through the season.

Given the Wave’s struggles to advance possession this year, Morgan has had to drop deeper than usual to get on the ball. That’s illustrated by how much more frequently she’s having to direct her passes upfield — 16.2% of her distribution advances at least 5 yards toward goal, a rate more commonly seen from a midfielder than a striker and well above her 12.1% in 2022. She has looked less inclined to take an opponent on with her dribble, making just three take-ons in 542 minutes this season after logging 35 in 1,630 minutes last year.

Even more concerning is the 0 in her goals scored column this season despite logging nearly 600 minutes.

Morgan’s lack of versatility could have also factored into Hayes’ decision. Morgan has long been an expert striker, scoring 123 goals as the USWNT’s fifth-all-time leading goalscorer. But with that specialization comes a lack of experience at other positions, like some of the players called up for the tournament.

Hindered in part by her club team’s stagnating approach in possession, Morgan hasn’t been able to enjoy a similarly bountiful amount of service in the box. She has yet to take a single shot inside the six-yard box in the 2024 season, leading to a steep regression in her expected goals per shot, and only six of her 20 shot attempts this season have been taken on her stronger left foot.

Wave teammate Jaedyn Shaw was able to do just enough despite the team’s floundering form to remain in Hayes’ plans for the Olympics. Unfortunately, Morgan didn’t have the same bulk of strong USWNT performances that helped anchor Shaw’s case for inclusion, with Hayes calling her national team goal involvements “significant” on Wednesday.

Morgan’s greatest case for making another Olympic appearance had more to do with the intangibles, whether that was her presence as a veteran leader alongside captain Lindsey Horan, or the kind of presence she could offer at the late stages of a knockout match considering her major tournament track record. With an 18-player roster, it’s clear Hayes could not justify those intangibles over more basic roster needs.

“There’s no denying the history of this program has been hugely successful, but the reality is that it’s going to take a lot of work for us to get to that top level again,” Hayes said.

Youth is part of that process. Hayes has named the youngest Olympic roster for the USWNT since 2008, when the team won gold in Beijing. The current roster has an average age of 26.8, four years younger than the team that went to Tokyo in 2021 and settled for a bronze medal. But even more stark is the difference in the number of appearances from the last Olympics. The average caps per player in 2021 was 111; for this team the average is only 58.

“Looking through the cap accumulation of the team, there’s been a lack of development, of putting some of the less experienced players in positions where they can develop that experience,” Hayes said. “I think it’s important that we have to do that to take the next step. So I’m not looking backwards.”

Morgan’s 224 appearances for the U.S. far surpasses any player on the Olympic squad. (Photo by Brad Smith, Getty Images for USSF)

Hayes pointed to Shaw’s inclusion on the roster to support this idea, focusing on younger players and their development at major tournaments to gain experience that would benefit the USWNT immediately and in the longer term. Hayes avoided questions about where the team might finish or what its goals would be for the Olympics, stressing that her mission was getting the team as close as possible to its best level and best version.

Morgan, for all the history and legacy she will leave in her absence, might have provided a short-term boost. She also might not have. It’s impossible to predict what an individual player might contribute in the run of a major tournament. Ultimately, Hayes is focusing on something larger, building on the changes that have already been made following the early exit from last summer’s World Cup.

“For us, this is an opportunity to show those learnings will take us much further than it did last time,” she said. “But there is no guarantee in anything in life.”

(Top photo: Getty Images; Design: Dan Goldfarb)

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