A little more than a year ago, Alex Morgan felt out of the national-team loop. This was an unsettling position for the star American forward, who’s scored 115 goals—the fifth-most in U.S. history—during her international career. She’s a player who, along with Megan Rapinoe, has been the face of the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) for more than a decade.
But Morgan didn’t perform at her usual level at the pandemic-marred 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Spending 35 days away from her then one-year-old daughter, Charlie, taxed her mind. The Americans fell to Canada in the semis and won bronze.
Morgan did not attend the last national-team training camp of that year. She wasn’t on the roster for the first few camps of 2022. She’d have to prove her worth all over again. But at 32, not 22.
Then, during the 2022 National Women’s Soccer League season, Morgan exploded. Playing for the expansion San Diego Wave FC, in a comfortable city where she and her husband, pro soccer player Servando Carrasco, plan on settling, Morgan, now 34, won the Golden Boot as the league’s top goal scorer. She netted 15 goals in 17 games. It was her career best.
So Morgan’s entering this World Cup, her fourth, in top form. “I know what to expect a little bit more now,” she told TIME Studios for an upcoming Netflix documentary about the team. “In previous World Cup preps, I probably would be overstressed on things, like what I was eating, what I was doing every single day, how many hours of sleep I was getting. Every little detail. Of course these details matter. But I’m not getting on myself about the little things. If I don’t do something perfect, it’s OK.”
“One thing that is different for Alex than the Olympics is that she had a lot more time to spend with the team,” says USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski. Morgan had taken some time off after giving birth to Charlie in May 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the typical training schedules. “It’s hard sometimes for the players to get back into the rhythm, get back in the environment,” says Andonovski. “And I think in some ways, it wasn’t fair for Alex before the Olympics. When she’s on the field, she’s comfortable in the environment. She’s been in this environment longer than most players. So I think that we’re going to see the best of Alex this summer.”
Morgan agrees with her coach. For one, she believes motherhood has helped her game. “[Parenthood] just makes me feel more balanced all around,” she told PEOPLE. “I’m able to give everything to the sport and my teams, but when I go home, I’m not dwelling on whether I had a bad training or bad game. I just have to be a mom and tend to my child’s needs instead of overanalyzing things.”
Charlie also forced Morgan to adjust her tactics. “Coming back from giving birth was really hard,” she told TIME Studios. “I didn’t feel super quick or super fast right away. I had already adapted my game to kind of finding the ball, and finding spaces in different ways without having to use my speed. So by the time my speed did come back from pregnancy, I was able to mesh the two together a little bit more. I feel like I’m finding myself in good goal-scoring positions more frequently than I ever have before.” As evidenced by her Golden Boot.
While Morgan will be expected to shoulder a scoring load in New Zealand and Australia, she’ll also have to guide younger players—like fellow forwards Trinity Rodman, 21, Sophia Smith, 22 and Alyssa Thompson, 18—through their first World Cup experience. “Every day in camp, Alex is always taking me under her wing,” says Smith. “Helping me, explaining things to me. She’s someone that I’ve looked up to my whole life. I can watch how she goes through life and learn from it, day in and day out.”
Rather than feel threatened by the rising stars, Morgan admires them. “They’re owning where they are,” says Morgan. “The confidence I’ve seen from these young players is unmatched.”
She’s looking forward to her first World Cup as a mom. Charlie will make the trip. “She really wants to go swimming all day every day,” says Morgan. “I have to break it to her that it’s winter” in Australia and New Zealand. Crystal Dunn’s son, Marcel, 1, will also fly to the World Cup, while Julie Ertz’s son, Madden, who turns 1 in August, traveled with the team to New Zealand.
While Morgan’s still got plenty to accomplish on the pitch, she’s also thinking about her legacy. Supporting moms in sports is top of mind. “We have three moms on the roster going to the World Cup,” says Morgan. “That’s a testament to the support that we’ve gotten from this team, the federation, from the NWSL, from our sponsors. That’s not the case around the world. And we’re trying to make a stand for it and show that the amount of support that you get is necessary in order to compete at the highest level.”
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Write to Sean Gregory at firstname.lastname@example.org