On a drizzly spring evening in New York City, Alex Morgan fixes her gaze on the golf ball at her feet, cocks her arms and then propels them forward with effortless power. The ball leaps off the tee and sails toward the netting between the tee and the Hudson River 200 yd. away. “This is nice,” Morgan says, exhaling between swings. “Really nice.”
The driving range is a favorite escape for Morgan, but she’s spending less and less time there–even as she needs the release more than ever. The reigning U.S. women’s soccer player of the year, Morgan is the sport’s most marketable American star since Mia Hamm and the linchpin of Team USA’s bid to clinch a second consecutive World Cup title this summer. She leads the U.S. into the tournament, which begins on June 7 in France, facing outsize expectations both on the field and off.
As the defending champions and top-ranked team, the Americans are favored to win. But the competition is historically tough. When the U.S. hosted the landmark 1999 World Cup, which led tens of thousands of girls to sign up for youth soccer leagues, only a few countries were considered contenders. Traditional soccer powers like France, England and Spain didn’t even qualify. Now, thanks in part to increased investment from soccer governing bodies and their corporate backers, many more have a real shot in the tournament, which now has 24 teams, up from 16 two decades ago.
Read more (via Time)