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SHE DIDN'T have to do this. Mia Hamm is busy enough these days raising twin six-year-old daughters and a one-year-old son with her husband, six-time major league All-Star Nomar Garciaparra. The most famous U.S. soccer player of all time cherishes her privacy—yet here she is, perched in a luxury box above Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, beholding the Future as it becomes the Present. On a slate-gray April day in Soccer City, USA, nearly 17,000 fans are cheering on the Portland Thorns and the new face of the women's game, the heir to Hamm's legacy, a 23-year-old goal-scoring machine named Alex Morgan.
Hamm is one of those fans, which explains why she flew here from her home near L.A., and as the crowd fills the stadium with European-inspired chants she scans the scene with the intensity of a radiologist poring over an X-ray. On the field Morgan is inescapable, a blur of movement identifiable by her trademark pink headband. "She's so dynamic and explosive with her speed and strength," says Hamm. "Then you see her getting a little pissed off when she doesn't score.... " This is not a bad thing. "It's fantastic," Hamm clarifies. "She wants to be a factor every time she steps out there."
But this isn't just distant admiration. Hamm and Morgan go deeper. Back in January, Morgan was living alone in Southern California and faced a month of training without a coach. After much hesitation, she summoned the courage to call up her childhood idol and ask for help. "I was really nervous, obviously, because she's Mia Hamm," says Morgan, who as a 15-year-old in 2004 attended Hamm's final game, screamed Hamm's name with all the other ponytailed hooligans and resolved to reach the national team herself some day. Finally, though, Morgan took a deep breath and pushed the call button.
Hi, Mia. I know this is kind of weird and random, but could you come out and train me and a couple of the girls?
Yeah, definitely. What are you doing tomorrow?
And so it went. Morgan organized the practice sessions at the StubHub Center in Carson, 30 minutes south of L.A. Hamm would bring her children—would even bring Nomar—and she'd lead a series of drills, often breaking to provide feedback. With Morgan, Hamm focused on one-touch passing, balance over the ball and one-on-one attacking in the box. Though Morgan has already scored an astonishing 44 goals in 66 international games, including two in a friendly win over rival Canada earlier this month, she's aware that she needs to keep improving as opponents design their game plans around stopping her. Hamm is helping her do that, and in the process she's connecting one era, that of the 1999 World Cup winners, with another.
"I learned so much from her," says Morgan. "It's been cool closing the gap with the two generations. With [the current] national team it's almost us versus the '99ers, which I hate. I want us all to be one team."
In all of women's soccer, only Hamm has experienced the whirlwind of mainstream stardom that is now sweeping up Morgan, a fresh-faced scorer with limitless marketing potential. Only Hamm can provide first-hand advice on how to deal with its possibilities and pitfalls. "She's been there before," says Morgan, "and she's kept her door open if I need someone to talk to—or vent to."
In the end, Hamm says, what Morgan does on the field matters most, and tonight's game in the upstart National Women's Soccer League does not disappoint. Midway through the second half, with the Thorns leading the Seattle Reign 1--0, Portland's Christine Sinclair makes a steal, then fires a low cross-field pass to Morgan, on the left, who races onto the ball at full speed, takes one simple touch and blasts a left-footed screamer across the goalmouth and into the far right corner of the net. It's a perfect example of what U.S. coach Tom Sermanni calls Morgan's greatest gift: her "predatory instinct," something that cannot be coached.
The goal recalls Hamm in her 1990s heyday, and up in the luxury box the legend stands and claps. For a moment, as the brimming stadium erupts, you can't help but wonder: Could Morgan do something that not even Hamm could achieve? Could she make women's pro soccer a viable business in the United States?