One of the guiding principles by which USWNT has existed has always been the dominant attacking player, and how that tradition has almost literally been passed on from generation to generation. Abby Wambach started her international career playing with Mia Hamm, just as Hamm had played with Michelle Akers before her. Fittingly, each of these three players were major figures in each of the three World Cups the U.S. women won. Both Hamm and Akers made the U.S. squads in 1991 and 1999, while Abby Wambach finally received the World Cup she deserved last summer. It just seems like the team has always had that player, the one that the team needed in order to succeed, the one that broke the glass ceiling on the collective American sport conscious for women. That's how the USWNT has always been understood: a great team surrounding a superstar.
As Wambach grew older and older, the search for the new future of the USWNT attack kicked into high gear, and for the better part of the last six or seven years, that player was supposed to be Alex Morgan.
Her crucial stoppage time goal against Italy (which begins at 3:41 in the video above) that helped the United States avoid missing the Women's World Cup for the first time ever typified what we would come to see from Alex Morgan for the next several years: speed and finishing. An Abby Wambach flick allowed Morgan to run in behind her defender and finish one-on-one with the keeper. The legend of "Baby Horse" was born, and for a while, it stayed that way. Wambach continued to post goals at a silly rate, but Morgan was an absolute spark plug off the bench, and between Wambach's aerial presence (and underrated hold-up game) and Morgan's speed, the chemistry between the two and the passing of the torch seemed clear: here was the person to lead the U.S. women forward in Wambach's stead.
Fast forward to 2016. Abby Wambach has officially retired as the highest scoring international in the game, woman or man. The United States has finally, blessedly, finished their interminably long "Victory Tour" (the one which prevented players from playing with their NWSL clubs; the one that sparked the "Turf Wars" anew; the one that made it very clear that the USWNT is a cash cow first and collection of professionals second), and have just qualified for the Olympics. The She Believes Cup is happening, the first tournament in which the United States has faced top-level opposition not named Canada since the World Cup ended, and Alex Morgan has just won the game against France.
But this team looks very different than what we might have expected only a couple years ago. Carli Lloyd, not Alex Morgan, is the undisputed leader of the U.S. attack. Newcomers Morgan Brian and Lindsey Horan have established themselves in the squad, Christen Press and Crystal Dunn have begun breaking down the door for playing time up top, and no one can stop talking about Mal Pugh, the 17 year old that has played her way from charming story to legitimate Starting XI choice in a couple months. Alex Morgan is still undeniably the face of the team in advertisement pull and still seen as the premier player in the NWSL by many. But the next USWNT legend she almost certainly is not. What happened?
The numbers are not kind to Morgan. Disregarding the Victory Tour, since it was the definition of a victory lap, and most of CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying (because while CONCACAF opposition is indeed growing stronger, there is still a wide chasm that separates the U.S. from most of the rest of the group), Morgan has provided precious little in the attack for the Americans. In a pool consisting of games either in the World Cup or against top 30 FIFA opposition since then, Alex Morgan has started nine games and been used as a substitute in two more. Accounting for the time in which she has been substituted out, that's nearly 800 minutes of game time, and in that time, Morgan has managed to score two goals and register zero assists.
In fact, Morgan's goal against France is the first time she's scored a goal against a top 20 opponent in a somewhat meaningful game in almost a year, since a goal against Switzerland in the 2015 Algarve Cup. That's not a great statline for your best attacker to have when that year includes a World Cup Final and a separate tournament featuring four of the five best women's teams in the world. Morgan just hasn't been scoring when it really matters over the past couple of years.
There are many things that could account for this near halt in production against top opposition, from coaching tactics to simple chemistry on the field. Morgan was coming back from injury to begin last summer's World Cup. Also, it's hard to argue that Morgan hasn't been able to find the attacking chemistry she once enjoyed with Wambach.
But what's also hard to argue against is U.S. results despite Morgan's lack of production: in the 13 games sampled, the U.S. won all except for one, a nil-nil draw against Sweden. And that production might even be growing less and less: according to WoSo Stats, against England, Crystal Dunn had as many dribbling take-on attempts and take-on wins as Alex Morgan in addition to her absolute cannon of a goal. Alex Morgan played 80 minutes against England, while Crystal Dunn was on the field for just 23.
Morgan is still producing against clearly inferior sides, so her goal totals will continue to look gaudy. But with the rest of the world rapidly catching up the United States in terms of the visibility and prestige of women's soccer (not to mention the advance in time and resources devoted to respective women's programs around the world), one has to wonder how long hat tricks against Trinidad and Tobago will keep Morgan in the U.S. starting XI. Her goal against France was vintage Alex Morgan, Mal Pugh slipping a through ball between the center backs for Morgan to rush onto and finish past the keeper. She'll need to continue to find that form in front of goal, because the players behind her are as hungry and talented as ever.
Crystal Dunn looks like an even faster, more aggressive version of Morgan herself. Christen Press has been patiently waiting her turn, but might be the most complete forward in the U.S. pool, scoring two goals in Olympic Qualifying while being used almost exclusively as a substitute (compared to Morgan's five: three against T&T, two against Costa Rica).
The time when Morgan could rely on runs off of Wambach's back shoulder are over. She is now the headliner; she is the person defenses will focus on containing. Whether Morgan can shoulder that responsibility and find a way to produce in spite of it will go a long way in determining the success of the USWNT in Brazil this summer, and the future of the U.S. starting XI beyond.