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Alex Morgan’s versatility gives USA extra option in England semi-final | Caitlin Murray

Alex Morgan is virtually the face of women’s football — and maybe even football, period, for casual fans — in the United States, picking up where Mia Hamm left off in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Nike, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and others have signed Morgan to sponsorship deals. She has her own line of books for girls that have been turned into a streaming series on Amazon Prime and her combined followers of almost 14 million on the big three social media networks ostensibly makes her the most followed USA footballer online.

Part of it is because Morgan is marketable, relatable, and a role model for girls playing for youth clubs and in college. But there is a bigger reason: Morgan scores a ton of goals.

She burst into the public consciousness during the 2011 World Cup when she scored in the final against Japan, and she has been a star ever since, amassing 106 goals in 167 matches for USA.

Morgan’s form coming into the World Cup was particularly good, with 33 goals in her previous 39 games, her clinical finishing often carrying a team. When she gets the service she needs, she is deadliest when racing in behind defences and finishing from difficult, wide angles. Although she played in France with Lyon for a short stint in 2017 and improved her ability to take on defenders, her bread and butter remains the very American approach of relying on pace and power to blast past the opposition.

But after scoring five goals against Thailand in USA’s first game of the World Cup, she has not scored since. That Thailand game was a weird one – it set the record for the biggest win in World Cup history – and since it might have been alarming if Morgan had not scored multiple goals, it is easy to write off.

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For most strikers, no goals in four World Cup games would be a disappointment but it has allowed Morgan to show off other vital parts of her game.

“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 want to do is execute that and I think that I have.”.

She displayed a different role in the quarter-final against France, which USA won 2-1 thanks to two goals from the effervescent left-winger Megan Rapinoe. Rather than hanging around up top, waiting for balls in behind, Morgan dropped deeper, holding up the ball and finding the wings. She was the one who threaded the ball to Tobin Heath, racing past her on the right for what turned into the winner.

“The kudos to Alex is that she has a balance in her game, in terms of penetration or, like in the France game, being more of a player who can hold the ball up for us,” the USA manager, Jill Ellis, said. “Sometimes you get one or the other but Alex has worked on that and has that balance.”.

The centre-back Abby Dahlkemper said Morgan’s ability to shift from a target striker to a holding player shows why she is so potent. “She is that link player, dropping off the centre-backs to connect for the transition,” Dahlkemper said. “She did awesome and proved why she’s one of the top strikers in the world – not only being able to score goals but set them up as well.”.

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While Morgan is adept at using her movement to drag defenders around and create space, her back-to-goal hold-up play is perhaps the most underrated part of her game. That is especially true when teams target her, just as Spain and France tried to do.

“As a No 9 I’m going to be ploughed through quite often and that comes with the job,” Morgan said.

At this point, however, teams may be more worried about Rapinoe, who has tied Morgan’s five goals for the competition. Unless Phil Neville mixes it up and asks Lucy Bronze to play in the midfield – a switch he teased was a possibility in his pre-match press conference – then Bronze, who Neville calls the best right-back in the world, will have the opportunity to contain Rapinoe.

That could force Morgan to take up more of the goalscoring load again. Though she has almost always played as a central striker for USA, the left-footed Morgan played on the left wing for Lyon and she is comfortable floating wide into different areas in front of goal. That could allow her to be a roaming presence in a bid to overload Bronze.

Whether Morgan’s role on Tuesday will involve scoring goals or not, her teammates and manager are sure she will do whatever it takes to reach the World Cup final. “I think there’s a single-mindedness right now in Alex,” Ellis said. “I see that in her play and I see it off the field as well.”.

Four more to watch

Megan Rapinoe.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, Rapinoe has been the star of the USA team. With five goals in five games, it seems no one can stop her — not even the president of the United States, who apparently has nothing better to do than chastise Rapinoe for declining an invitation to the White House that he hadn’t extended yet. Just look for the player with the pink hair delivering pinpoint crosses from the left wing. That’s Pinoe.

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Alyssa Naeher.

The USA goalkeeper’s biggest flaw is perhaps simply that she’s not as good as Hope Solo, who holds the world record in clean sheets. But Naeher, who is playing in her first World Cup, has had her nervy moments, with a poor decision allowing Spain to score, and another error nearly letting Chile pull one back as well. Given England’s attacking prowess, especially the co-Golden Boot leader Ellen White, Naeher is going to have a good game in the semi-final. If not, that may decide who advances.

Crystal Dunn.

She doesn’t consider herself a defender, but Dunn is the starting left-back for the Americans – and it’s going to be her difficult task to shut Nikita Parris down. That could be deeply worrying, since one-on-one defending has never been Dunn’s strongest skill, but she acquitted herself rather well against France’s Kadidiatou Diana in the quarter-final. Dunn is a modern full-back who pushes high up the field to create a numerical advantage in the midfield, but she will still have to track back and stop Parris, which could be the key to keeping England off the scoreboard.

Julie Ertz.

Unless Jill Ellis mixes things up, look for Ertz to start as a defensive midfielder and play a crucial role in preventing England’s advancement up the field. Ertz, who is easy to spot with her bright blue headband, is a physical player who flies into tackles and is given a huge responsibility in covering a lot of the central-midfield. At times, she’ll drop between the centre backs and help the USA build out of the back, too. But Ertz is the their best player in the air on set pieces, and this tournament has seen set pieces decide plenty of games, which means she may play an especially important role.