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) Hernández; 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.