Alex Morgan and Buffalo's Best Kept Secret
Morgan Starred for U.S.; WNY Flash Dominate Women’s Professional Soccer League
Alex Morgan is slowly but surely bringing women’s soccer back to the mainstream. Meg Kinsley /// The Spectrum
U.S. citizens watched with wide eyes this summer as their women's national soccer team flurried through the 2011 World Cup.
The squad fell just short in the championship match, but a star emerged from that tournament. She's been on Sportscenter, she's trended on Twitter, and she's signed endorsement deals, but on any given summer day, you can find Alex Morgan playing soccer right outside of Buffalo.
Seemingly the entire world watched as the U.S. lost in the final World Cup game to Japan, 2-2 in a shootout. Throughout the tournament and final, Morgan emerged as the class of the red, white and blue.
The 22-year-old phenom was this year's No. 1 overall draft pick of the Women's Professional Soccer League. Morgan was selected by an expansion team - the Western New York Flash.
In addition to Morgan, the Michael Jordan of women's soccer plays for the Flash; five-time World Player of the Year Marta signed with WNY in January.
The Flash practice at Sahlen's Sports Park in Elma, NY, which is a mere 20 minutes outside of the city. With the help of Morgan and Marta, the Flash won the WPSL Championship this weekend 2-1 over the Philadelphia Independence in penalty kicks.
The thrilling championship victory was just another notch on an already impressive inventory of achievements for the young striker. Morgan has seen her popularity rise faster than she ever imagined, and she's enjoyed her rise to fame, but the California native has a greater agenda in mind.
"Everything right now is relatively new for me," Morgan said. "I'm not going to lie; the attention is a little weird and it's different from what I'm used to, but I definitely want to bring attention to women's soccer in the states. I'm going to help out women's soccer as much as I can. I want to keep turning heads for women's sports in the U.S. and in the world."
Flash head coach Aaran Lines isn't focused on Morgan's celebrity status. She's just another player in Lines' eyes.
"I don't pay that much attention to the media," Lines said. "To me, I see our No. 1 draft pick. I watch what she's doing on the field at practice every day. I don't look at what the media is saying about her."
Morgan believes the after-effect of the 1999 World Cup changed women's soccer forever. Morgan knows that the popularity of women's soccer will die down again because the World Cup only takes place once every four years, but she hopes that people will continue to pay attention. Her professional team practically forced fans to continue taking notice as the Flash tore apart the WPSL when Marta and Morgan returned from the World Cup. The Flash went the final 11 games of the season without suffering a defeat.
Poetically, WNY began that streak following a 2-1 loss to Philadelphia. The WPSL championship game mirrored Team USA's loss to Japan; both WNY and the U.S. blew late leads and both games headed to penalty kicks. This time, however, Morgan wouldn't settle for second place. The Flash finished the season 14-2-3 as regular season champions and WPS champions.
Though WNY claimed a championship, Morgan's loss in the World Cup finale remains fresh in her memory.
"The whole game was very emotional," Morgan said. "I went from scoring the first goal, which was probably the best feeling I'll ever have – I just wanted to cry on the field – to the penalty shootout, which was up and down and very emotionally draining.
"We were disappointed at the moment; we were heartbroken. We didn't really feel the impact that we had on the U.S. until we got home because we didn't see it firsthand. Coming back to the U.S. and seeing the fans in the airport and in the hotel made us feel proud for the first time since we got the silver medal."
Assistant coach Scott Vallow said the U.S. players related to Americans via their fight, drive, bravery and never-say-die attitude, and that's why they were able to captivate so many people.
Lines said the U.S. run was enormous for the game. In his mind, now people are well aware of what's going on, so it's been a miraculous spectacle for the Women's Professional Soccer League.
It appeared that everybody in the U.S. – including the media – developed a soft spot for their women's national team in the tournament. Various media outlets have been widely criticized for sympathizing with the U.S. squad following the team's defeat in the final. America went in with the No. 1 ranking in the world but finished second in the tournament. Morgan has her own take on the topic.
"Everyone's always going to have their opinions and there's always going to be a devil's advocate, so that's fine," Morgan said. "People are entitled to their opinions. I've heard multiple things, from we played the best game – I do think we played very well – to we choked."
It was difficult for Morgan to listen to the negative feedback but she realizes that it comes with the territory and thinks that's just the way it goes in soccer sometimes.
"In the U.S., it's usually first or nothing, but there's been such an outpouring of overwhelming support, and we're really thankful for that," Morgan said.
Morgan urged fans to come out to a game in the future. She said she hopes people realize that the WNY squad boasts players from six different countries that came together to play in Buffalo's backyard.
Athletic trainer Gerard "Micky" Gingras noticed a drastic spike in attendance from young Flash fans. Local teams frequently come out to Sahlen's to watch the Flash practice, and Gingras said the professional players love it as much as the kids.
The Flash have a connection with UB, too. Center back Kimberly Brandão is Portugal's captain and an assistant coach for UB's women's soccer team.
Brandão said all her different professional and national experiences have assisted her coaching career at UB. She knows what it's like for the players, and she's aware of the amount of dedication it takes to play at the highest level.
"The World Cup was a great showcase of what women's soccer is going to be like and how good it can really get," Brandão said. "We're just trying to do our part to make it as big as possible."
Just how big can women's soccer get? That remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: Morgan is doing her part.
"We've got people's attention," Morgan said. "Now we just need to keep it."
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