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" 'Just play me over the top,'" adds Carrasco. "Now she makes inside-to-outside runs. Last year she had 21 assists. That's because she uses her speed to draw defenders and unbalance [an opponent's] back line. It opens up space for the rest of the team. Her understanding of the game from watching more soccer has brought her to an even higher level. And she's only 23. It's scary."
Sundhage, who coached the U.S. women from 2007 to '12, says that her teams always had surpassing athleticism. But she started to notice a rise in her team's soccer IQ late in her tenure, as more young women such as Morgan, Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn became regular viewers of Champions League and English Premier League games on television. According to Morgan, players even asked Sundhage if she might consider scheduling practices to avoid conflicts with big European matches. "Last year, during Euro 2012, we had brackets, [which got] the whole team involved," says Morgan. "It catches on so quickly. Now I want to know starting lineups, every player's name."
Watching Bayern take apart Barcelona, Morgan and Carrasco veer into an array of soccer-related subjects: how to counteract a high-pressing opponent; how Bayern is forcing Barça star Lionel Messi to drop deep in search of the ball; and, as Bayern builds a lead, how Barça center back Gerard Piqué is taking a risk by moving too far upfield. "They're pushing numbers," Carrasco points out.
"They're going to pay for it," Morgan says as Bayern counters quickly and, sure enough, scores again. It's a rough day to be a Barça fan. "This is bad," she says. Bayern wins 4--0, and within hours Morgan is on the move again, navigating back down I-5 to Portland for the following day's practice session.
MORGAN IS entering a new stage of her career, both with the U.S. squad and with her Portland club. Years ago, when she was a teenager climbing the national ranks, teammates nicknamed her Baby Horse, owing to her coltish running style and her newness on the team. Morgan doesn't love the name—she's more established now and is showing more leadership, organizing off-season training sessions and team dinners. "The Baby Horse tag is going away," says David Copeland-Smith, one of her off-season technical coaches. "Now she's more of a thoroughbred."
In fact, it's easy to forget that Morgan is still only 23, with an entire career ahead of her. "I had to grow up really fast on this team because I came onto the scene right before the World Cup [in 2011]," she says. "I was introduced to so many things that I pretended as if I'd done this before. But inside my head I was like, Keep it together! I went from never doing interviews to doing 10 in one day and standing in front of 60,000 fans. Now people look up to me, and I'm seeing little girls wearing my jersey."
This is her life now. After the game against Seattle, an army of young girls masses next to the field in Portland. "Alex! Alex!" they yell, and Morgan dutifully signs autographs.
It wasn't so long ago that she was one of them, chanting the name of a legend, imagining she might one day be in the same spot.