Alex Morgan stood on the pitch at the Stade de Lyon with her teammates and closed her eyes for a few moments to be alone with her thoughts.
The U.S. women’s World Cup team was taking its stadium familiarization session, a chance given to each squad to get a feel for its surroundings before a match — in this case, the Americans’ semifinal against England on Tuesday. But Morgan needed no familiarization or directions. She had played there for Olympique Lyonnais in 2017, a six-month journey that tested her self-reliance and accelerated her growth toward becoming a multidimensional player.
Retracing her stops around Lyon on Sunday morning reminded her of what she had accomplished here and increased her appreciation for returning on such a splendid occasion.
“Just coming to the city made me so happy,” she said. “Being at the stadium for the first time in two years brings back such great memories, so I’m really excited to see a full stadium for the game. It’s great to be back here.
“This city is beautiful and one that I spent a lot of time in alone, by myself, because I didn’t have my husband [Galaxy midfielder Servando Carrasco] and was new to the team. Being able to explore was, I think, a good emotional break from soccer for an hour. It just helped me remember some of the important times of how I progressed my game and was able to evolve as a player.”
Despite absorbing constant elbows, tugs, shoves, kicks to the shins and other indignities committed against a striker of her ability — she has suffered eight fouls, according to official statistics, and has shown signs of an ankle problem — she has excelled while taking on different responsibilities. She shrugged off the intense physicality, especially in the past two games, as merely part of the territory.
“In general our team has been able to adapt to what the game has given us and that includes myself,” she said. “I’ve been given different roles within the team, defensively and on the attacking side. All I would like to do is be able to execute that, and I think that I have.”
Against Spain in the round of 16 and against France in the quarterfinal she had more defensive duties than usual and also became a facilitator, making the pass to Tobin Heath that Heath fed to Rapinoe for the U.S. team’s second goal against France. If it were hockey, Morgan would have gotten the second assist.
“I think Alex has a balance in her game in terms of penetration and being able to, like she did in the France game, be more of a player that could hold the ball up for us, and that’s tough,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “Sometimes you get one or the other and I think Alex has worked on that and has that balance.
“I think there’s a single-mindedness right now in Alex. At least I see that in her play and I see that off the field, as well.”
Morgan showed that determination during her time with Olympique Lyonnais.
“I was able to really dive in. Football was my one and only here. I didn’t have family here, I didn’t have anyone to lean on. I was by myself,” she said. “I came here, I trained, I ate, breathed and slept soccer. … We had a lot of games in a short period of time within the league. We had French Cup, we had Champions League. I was able to maximize those six months, and I think that my evolution as a player grew a little bit here because I was able to focus on a different style of play and was also used in different ways, as a [striker] and as a winger, so I was able to learn from that. And playing with some of the best players in the world, the training environment was the best it could possibly be aside from playing with the U.S.”
Morgan, who grew up in Diamond Bar and played on the 2011 and 2015 U.S. teams, isn’t getting the glory here. She doesn’t need it or crave it. The Golden Boot, awarded to the top goal producer, isn’t what she’s after, though she hopes someone on the U.S team wins it.
“My goal is to help this team win a World Cup. As long as the goals continue to come then I’m happy. And that’s not goals continuing to come for me, but for this team,” she said. “Right now, Megan Rapinoe has put this team on her back from Spain to France, and it’s going to take more players like that and a couple of other individuals each game to step up and really help carry this team. ’Pinoe has done that in great fashion the last two games.”
England coach Phil Neville praised Morgan and Rapinoe and suggested Tuesday’s game could become a battle between White and Morgan for top scoring honors.
“There’s brilliant players on this football pitch,” he said. It’s a place Morgan knows well and where she can create another happy memory on Tuesday.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen