Soccer's Alex Morgan soars in whirlwind between World Cups

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Alex Morgan was a bright-eyed Cal grad for her first World Cup back in 2011 and instantly became a star. Now she's a savvy vet, handling her fame with aplomb as she prepares for her World Cup sequel.

Morgan's star rose quickly following her performance in Germany four years ago. As the youngest player on the U.S. World Cup team she became a super sub with a goal and an assist in the final against Japan.

She has since become one of the most recognized players on the U.S. team. She's a spokeswoman for ChapStick and she's on boxes of Cocoa Pebbles. She has appeared in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit edition twice and she has even been animated for "The Simpsons."

But she really just wants to play soccer.

"I don't get wrapped up in that because I don't want to dwell on something like a commercial or doing something off the field," she said recently. "I don't want to dwell on something like that too long. I don't want to think, `Wow that's really cool, that's me.' Once I start to think like that, then I've changed my focus from what I do on the field to what I do off the field."

The past four years have been a whirlwind for the 24-year-old striker.

She became the first American player with both a goal and an assist in a final during the United States' loss to Japan in the World Cup and was fully established as a starter by the next summer when the London Olympics rolled around.

She scored an extra-time game-winner in a semifinal against Canada that sent the U.S. into the final against Japan in London and an eventual Olympic gold medal.

While her ascent may appear quick, Morgan believes it was just part of her career's progression.

"I've had a couple of injuries in between the Olympics and now, but I feel like for me, it's almost been building blocks, it's never been like I've been thrown into something all of the sudden," she said. "I feel like I've had a good amount of time to prepare and realize what I've been getting into."

Morgan was considered a rising star even before Germany.

She was the leading scorer in each of her four years at California from 2007-10, and she even graduated a semester early with a degree in political economy. Her 45 career goals tie her for third on Cal's all-time list.

She grabbed international attention in 2008 when she scored the winning goal for the U.S. in the U-20 World Cup final against North Korea.

Morgan has struggled with a few inopportune injures over the past year and a half. Late in 2013 she injured her left ankle during training camp, then injured it again during the group stage of CONCACAF qualifying last fall.

"That was probably the hardest thing about being injured, that I wanted nothing more than to be on the field and to help my team succeed on the field and win. But you feel helpless in a way," she said.

Morgan is sitting out a send-off tour for the United States as it makes its final preparations for the World Cup in Canada next month. She has what she calls a minor bone bruise in her left knee, and no one is taking any chances with her readiness.

Coach Jill Ellis said Morgan is too important to the team.

"She kind of came on as a super sub and now she's established herself as a starter, an integral part of our team. I think she's taken on more responsibility, more of a leadership role," Ellis said.

To date, Morgan has 51 goals and 32 assists in 84 international appearances. Earlier this year in a 1-0 victory over England, she scored in her 79th international match to become the third-fastest American woman to reach the 50-goal mark behind Michelle Akers (49 games) and Abby Wambach (64).

Morgan will miss Sunday's match in Carson, California, against Mexico, and she could miss the final send-off match against South Korea in New Jersey on May 30. The U.S. opens the World Cup on June 8 against Australia in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Given how she's looked recently, there's no need to be concerned about the layoff. She is certainly at the level she needs to be for the competition, said Paul Riley, coach of Morgan's NWSL team, the Portland Thorns.

Morgan was with the Thorns for about two weeks and played in one match before leaving for training camp with the U.S. team.

"She looked brilliant in practice," Riley said. "It's the best I've ever seen her."

Off the field, Morgan is a newlywed. On New Year's Eve she married her longtime boyfriend Servando Carrasco, a midfielder for Major League Soccer's Sporting KC and a fellow Cal alum.

All told, Morgan is in a good place - despite the pesky knee bruise - and ready to prove herself on soccer's biggest stage.

"Being on the national team, we're in a lot of pressure moments, and I think we do well with those pressure moments. You can just see from the World Cup and the Olympics, it's almost like I was born into this culture that strives off this pressure. And I think we've done well with that," she said. "I think there's another level for myself. That's why I'm so excited for this year, because I think I'll see that, and I'll be able to show people that."

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