PARIS - Long before she blistered the nets Tuesday night with five goals, Alex Morgan had taken a leading role in the run-up to the Women’s World Cup with her voice and presence away from the soccer field.
She had become one of the strongest and most eloquent advocates for gender equality within both the U.S. program and global circles.
As one of the world’s most recognized female athletes, she had appeared in TV spots and magazine covers, both in uniform and bikini. With nearly 10 million combined followers on Twitter and Instagram, her life and career are open books.
And as one of three captains, she has held a leadership position on a top-ranked team seeking to win a fourth world title in eight attempts.
On Tuesday, Morgan’s full attention turned to soccer.
“Right now,” she said, “this is our sole focus.”
In the first appearance of her third World Cup, she tied scoring records for the tournament and the national team during a 13-0 romp over Thailand. Several Americans have scored five times, but only Morgan and Michelle Akers, in 1991, have done so in a World Cup.
On the eve of the Group F opener in Reims, a French reporter asked Morgan if she considered herself a global ambassador for the women’s game.
“We all are ambassadors for the game globally,” she said. “We have to think that way.”
Teammate Megan Rapinoe is more forceful than Morgan on gender and political issues. Players from other teams have also taken stands, most famously Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, the best player in Europe, who left the national team two years ago over treatment of female players.
Hegerberg is not here. Morgan is.
“Whatever we do or say or the way we play, everything is going to be magnified,” Morgan said. “We have the microphone and we have the platform here.”
Morgan, who will turn 30 in three weeks, put aside the microphone for the most lopsided 90 minutes in World Cup history, for men or women. After her early goal was nullified by video replay, she scored in the 12th, 53rd, 74th, 81st and 87th minutes.
The only man to score five in a World Cup match was Russia’s Oleg Salenko in the U.S.-hosted 1994 competition.
Morgan also had three assists Tuesday.
Although Thailand was no match for the United States, she said she is “feeling in peak form right now.”
Morgan was in peak form in 2018, posting 18 goals in 19 matches. This year, however, she entered the World Cup in a 302-minute drought, her longest in four years.
Nonetheless, “She had in her mind she was going to score some good goals,” defender Julie Ertz said after Tuesday’s match. “I don’t want to say I was surprised.”
The goal haul eclipsed Morgan’s total from the previous two World Cups (three).
“I had a personal goal for three,” she said smiling.
Coach Jill Ellis said “some of Alex’s finishes were world class. And that’s a good feeling. You want your forward to feel that.”
Morgan and her teammates were criticized by some observers not so much for running up the score - after all, a coach can only remove three players, the U.S. team is programmed to attack constantly and goal differential is the first tiebreaker at the end of the group stage - but for their goal celebrations.
Morgan said, “This was a really good team performance, and I thought it was important to celebrate with each other.”
The Americans never mocked the Thai players and, at the final whistle, consoled them.
“We knew every goal could matter,” Morgan said of a possible tiebreaker scenario with Sweden. “We had to keep going.”
Morgan played a pivotal role in the 2011 World Cup in Germany, scoring in both the semifinals and final as the Americans finished second to Japan. At 21, she was the youngest member of the squad.
Four years later in Canada, a knee injury sidelined her for the first two group matches. Her only goal came in the round of 16, but she also drew penalty kicks and regained the pace to stretch opposing defenses.
With Abby Wambach retired and Carli Lloyd filling a reserve role this summer in her final World Cup, the spotlight is pointed firmly at Morgan.
From a tactical standpoint, she benefits from probably the best attack force in women’s soccer: Rapinoe is on Morgan’s left, Tobin Heath on the right. In previous years, Morgan has often paired with one other forward or lined up by herself.
“Alex is ready to take on a World Cup and really deliver,” Wambach said before the tournament started.
Beyond performance, Wambach added, Morgan is stepping up in other ways.
“She has taken more of a leadership role, becoming a voice for off-field issues, and that has played a big role is how she is respected and seen on the team internally,” Wambach said. “Of course, opponents have feared her from the beginning. For her to make a championship hers, in many ways, maybe scoring the goal isn’t necessarily going to be the [aim]. Winning is most important for her.
“In a lot of ways, she gets so much praise and so much attention, and I would love for that to get backed up by a championship-effecting tournament.”