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A Dream Come True
THEY FOUGHT FOR 123 minutes. They fought through ninety minutes of regulation. They fought through thirty minutes of extra time. And now they were fighting both exhaustion and each other in the third minute of stoppage time, the extra few minutes added to the clock to account for injury or substitution delays.
To call it a fight wasn’t an exaggeration. The women’s national soccer teams of the United States and Canada had clawed and grabbed and kicked and battled. They knocked each other down in the open field. They banged into each other contesting balls in the air. They were ferocious and physical, moving back and forth and back again. Anyone who says soccer is a noncontact sport has never really played, and certainly not at this level, in the semifinals of the 2012 London Olympics.
The Canadians led three times during the match. The Americans caught up three times. It was that kind of game, 1–0 then 1–1, 2–1 then 2–2, 3–2 and now 3–3 with just thirty seconds remaining of stoppage time. If no one scored in the next half-minute, the game would go to penalty kicks, with the winner advancing to the gold medal game against Japan.
For Alex Morgan, this was more than just another game. Growing up in Diamond Bar, California, she dreamed of becoming an Olympian even before she knew what sport she wanted to play. She settled early on soccer, of course, even penning a note to her mother when she was eight about how she was going to be a professional player. Everyone thought it was cute. Alex wasn’t kidding.
She climbed her way up the ranks of youth soccer. She played on her local recreational team until she was fourteen and didn’t join a travel club until she reached high school. At sixteen she made the US under-17 women’s national team. At eighteen she enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley on a full scholarship. Now it was 2012, and she was twenty-three years old and not just a starter, but a star on the US Women’s National Team (USWNT).
Her dream was coming true. Except, in that moment, it didn’t feel like it.
Just a year prior, Alex played for the United States in the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup. In the final against Japan, she scored the game’s first goal and assisted on another. However, Japan came back to tie the score and eventually force a penalty kick shootout. The Japanese won 3–1 on penalty kicks to win the World Cup. Alex and her teammates were crushed. It was the toughest loss of their lives. It was a reminder of how small the difference is between glory and defeat.
Now, one year later, Alex could feel the same thing happening in the Olympics—that the game was headed to a shootout. Victory was slipping from her grasp, and she was here to win. So were her teammates. They believed the United States had the best soccer team in the world. They needed to prove it, though. That meant beating Canada.
Alex was tall, fast, and talented. She would record twenty-eight goals and twenty-one assists in 2012, leading the USWNT in both categories. She was young, but she expected herself to deliver in the big moments of games. This was the biggest of moments. No one on the team was interested in letting an Olympic final berth be decided on penalty kicks, where anything could happen. They’d been through that heartbreak in the World Cup. They couldn’t have it happen again. Alex knew what she had to do.
“I’m a forward,” Alex said. “And as a forward, we are supposed to score.”
If the World Cup is the ultimate stage in soccer, the Olympics are only slightly less significant. Every kid around the world grows up dreaming of winning an Olympic gold. Now, a long way from those rec fields in California, here was Alex’s chance. The game took place in Manchester, England, at a stadium called Old Trafford, which is home to the famed Manchester United Football Club. Since the stadium has hosted so many great games and great players over the years, it’s been dubbed the “Theatre of Dreams.”
The US rivalry with Canada also added to the pressure of the moment. Along with Japan, Canada was the United States’ chief competition at the time. They played each other often, both during exhibition games, called “friendlies,” and during the World Cup qualifying matches. Many elite Canadian players also compete on club, or travel, teams in the United States as they grow up, seeking top competition. On her own club team, Alex was even teammates with Christine Sinclair, Canada’s captain and best player. Sinclair had scored all three of Canada’s goals in the Olympic game and was doing everything she could to will Canada to victory.
Familiarity and friendships meant nothing during this game. The stakes were too high. No one was backing down.
“I just wanted to beat Canada so bad,” Alex said.
After all those minutes of playing on the field, Alex was exhausted, but undeterred. She was banged up, but she wouldn’t let it bother her. The US had to win. So with thirty seconds remaining, when teammate Heather O’Reilly got the ball on the right flank and lobbed a cross into the goal box, Alex Morgan was focused: “I knew it was our last chance.”
She tracked the ball as it soared across the field. She thought about what she needed to do. “Get in front of your player,” Alex told herself. “Get your head or some body part on the ball.”
Six yards in front of the center of the net, she did just that, out-leaping two defenders—one in front of her, one coming in from behind. Just as she had trained and practiced for years and years, she timed the jump perfectly. As she reached the top of her leap, the ball struck her forehead. She flicked it toward the goal.
The Canadian goalie made a critical error. She either could have stayed back and defended the goal line, or come forward and tried to punch the ball away before Alex got her head on it. Instead the goalie hesitated for a split second, uncertain of what to do. As a result, she took two steps forward, then tried to retreat to the line. The mistake gave Alex the chance to make her move.
Alex’s header sailed just over the outstretched arms of the leaping Canadian goalie and just under the crossbar. It was the perfect shot. Anything just slightly higher or slightly lower would have been saved. This one wasn’t.
“Oh, it’s in!” the announcer screamed. “Alex Morgan has done it! Barely thirty seconds to go!”
United States 4, Canada 3.
Alex was knocked to the ground on the play, and when she got back to her feet she was too tired to run off to the sideline even to celebrate with her teammates. Old Trafford erupted into cheers, and the Canadians fell to their knees in disappointment and exhaustion. As the other American players raced toward Alex in excitement, she simply stood there with her arms raised and a smile on her face. Her teammates embraced her. They hugged. They laughed. They told one another “I love you.” Soon Alex found herself actually crying, something she wasn’t used to doing on a soccer field.
That’s how tired she was. Moments later the game was over. The United States was headed to the Olympic finals to play Japan.
“I can’t recall ever feeling this way after scoring a goal,” said Alex that night. Scoring it, she said, was the product of years of hard work. Not just training and perfecting her header, but all the wind sprints, all the weight lifting, all the work. “It was about who is the fittest, who is the strongest,” Alex said.
Days later, the US would defeat Japan 2–1 in the Olympic finals at Wembley Stadium in London, exacting a measure of revenge for their World Cup defeat the year before. Alex had an assist. When it was over, she climbed a podium, had a gold medal draped around her neck, and proudly listened as “The Star Spangled Banner” rang out into the London night.
Alex Morgan’s soccer dream was now very much real.
Text copyright © 2019 by Dan Wetzel