Why Alex Morgan was left off the USWNT’s Olympic roster

Alex Morgan and the U.S. women’s national team have been synonymous with each other for the past 14 years. But Wednesday brought news of an abrupt, surprising end to the forward’s run of major tournaments with a team whose standards she helped maintain and whose status she largely elevated.

Morgan was left off USWNT head coach Emma Hayes’ 18- player Olympic roster and is not one of the four alternates who will travel to France. Instead, she will watch the USWNT at a major tournament from afar for the first time since she earned her inaugural cap in March 2010. The USWNT last played a major tournament without Morgan at the 2008 Olympics.

This is not the end that she would have imagined — and perhaps she still holds out hope that it isn’t the end altogether — but Wednesday’s news was a harsh reminder that few athletes get to walk away on their own terms.

“Today, I’m disappointed about not having the opportunity to represent our country on the Olympic stage,” Morgan said in a statement on her social media accounts. “This will always be a tournament that is close to my heart and I take immense pride any time I put on the crest.”

What does Morgan’s omission mean for the USWNT at the Olympics — and beyond?

In a call with reporters on Wednesday, Hayes repeatedly stressed how difficult it is to select only 16 outfield players for an Olympic roster. She praised Morgan as both a person and a player in the limited time that they worked together at the most recent USWNT camp.

Ultimately, though, Morgan is a rare breed as a No. 9 — a pure striker who must be played centrally. For over a decade, the rest of the pieces have filled out around her, and her skillset, combined with the USWNT’s depth chart, justified that.

Morgan turns 35 next week, however, and the USWNT pool of players has turned younger in recent years as most of Morgan’s peers from the previous generation have retired or exited the international game. This USWNT Olympic roster is four years younger on average than the one at the previous Olympics three years ago. The group is also loaded with versatility –from the electric Sophia Smith to Morgan’s San Diego Wave teammate, 19-year-old Jaedyn Shaw, who can play anywhere across the front four roles.

Versatility is where Hayes ultimately made her choice. The fluidity and precision of a front three of Smith, Mallory Swanson and Trinity Rodman was on full display in the team’s last match, when the trio came off the bench and tortured South Korea‘s tired defense: Five minutes after they all entered with Smith replacing Morgan up top, Rodman dribbled and found Swanson for a subtle backheel flick to Smith, who finished for a goal.

“Having a roster that could adapt is essential,” Hayes told reporters on Wednesday. “We have a tight turnaround between games, so of course having players on the roster that could play more than one position mattered with squad depth.

“But I also think that there are players on the roster in the forward areas that are performing well and the decision to take those players was one that we certainly deliberated over. But I think it’s a balanced roster. I’ve considered all the factors that we’re going to need throughout the Olympics, and [the roster is] one that I’m really happy with.”

Morgan has long possessed a more diverse skillset than she often gets credit for. She burst onto the scene in 2010 as a 20-year-old with blistering speeds to punish defenses. Her play earned her the nickname she was happy to move on from, “Baby Horse,” and her style fit perfectly with a USWNT that played direct. The notion — or stigma, at times — that she is simply a fast forward who can run behind has followed her since.

Hayes has instead chosen to lean into a more dynamic forward group that is less constrained to traditional roles. Smith will operate as the No. 9 who can run behind and latch onto service, but she will also drift wide to allow Swanson and Rodman to cut inside and find the ball closer to net. Shaw can do the same.

All of those players are more creative on the dribble than Morgan, who likes to get the ball at her feet and lay it off to combine with teammates. Hayes’ preferences suggest she envisions a USWNT that will look to unlock teams on the dribble more frequently than it has in the past — a criticism she aired publicly about the U.S. style of play before taking the job.

Morgan, however, remains one of the most prolific strikers to ever wear the U.S. shirt — her 224 caps and 123 goals rank ninth and fifth, respectively, in USWNT history. She was, and still is, only the second player alongside Mia Hamm to tally 20 goals and 20 assists in one year. For years, her status on the team was without question.

She’s scored some of the most important goals in the team’s history. Her extra time goal in the 2012 Olympics semifinal to beat Canada at the end of a 4-3 thriller remains one of the most iconic in U.S. history. Her goal against England in the 2019 World Cup semifinal is another standout.

Her play in that 2019 tournament is remembered more widely for her tea-sipping celebration that caused a stir in England, but it was the dirty work she did beyond scoring that the USWNT needed. That was the back-to-goal, take-a-beating-for-the-team Alex Morgan that defined the evolution of her play. It was part of how the Americans grinded out a win over Spain in the round of 16 in 2019.



Kassouf: Morgan’s Olympics absence a ‘big decision’ from Hayes

Jeff Kassouf reacts to the news that Alex Morgan will not be a part of the USWNT’s Olympic roster in Paris.

Lately, however, her standing in the USWNT has been challenged more frequently, but each time she responded.

Former USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski attempted to rebuild the team in 2022 and looked toward Catarina Macario as the new No. 9. That plan, which saw Morgan left out of rosters early in the year, was cut short when Macario tore her ACL.

Morgan returned to the fold for the 2022 World Cup/Olympic qualifying event, where she won the Golden Ball. She also responded with the best club season of her career in 2022, scoring 15 goals to win the Golden Boot. Any notions of the national team without her were quickly forgotten.

Morgan maintained her starting role for the 2023 World Cup despite doubts about her game, and while her performance was forgettable — she didn’t score in that tournament — the USWNT was poor throughout, and the team’s issues ran deeper than any single player.

The arrival of Hayes as head coach always figured to bring significant change. Hayes is a big personality undeterred by tough decisions, with the record to back it all up. Morgan was left off the team’s initial Concacaf W Gold Cup roster in February — when the incoming Hayes was still semi-removed from the team as she finished coaching Chelsea — but Morgan joined the squad following an injury to Mia Fishel. Morgan quickly reassumed the starting No. 9 role in that tournament.

Perhaps that is why Wednesday felt so shocking. Morgan’s place on this team was ostensibly in question throughout the past two years, and each time, she answered the call with a reminder of how good she is.

Her form with the San Diego Wave this season — zero goals in eight games — came at the wrong time for this Olympic roster selection, and it is also more indicative of a wider issue with the Wave, who went from Shield winners last year to winless in seven games, such that coach Casey Stoney was fired earlier this week.

Sophia Smith always looked like the future No. 9 for the USWNT, and her recent Golden Boot award, MVP trophy, and NWSL Championship made a compelling case that she should be the No. 9 more immediately. Now, she is. Hayes will likely play Swanson and Rodman alongside Smith on the front line, leaning into their chemistry together to confuse opposing defenses. Shaw, Macario, and Crystal Dunn — listed as a forward — add depth in various positions.

Morgan has six career Olympic goals, and no player that made the Olympic roster has more than one.

She was the last standing of her generation with the USWNT, the group that won back-to-back World Cups and captured the attention of a nation while fighting for equal pay. Megan Rapinoe‘s retirement last year, and the quiet exit of former captain Becky Sauerbrunn after missing the 2023 World Cup due to injury, has created a noticeable shift away from experienced, outspoken leaders on the USWNT. Hayes says relishes developing leaders — and she’ll need them in France.

After years of Morgan forcing her way back into the team whenever she was counted out, this now appears to be an insurmountable task with the next World Cup three years away. Instead, it looks like a difficult ending to one of the most storied careers in USWNT history. For that reason, this decision could only ever been viewed as a surprise, despite the questions around versatility with this roster.

But it is also the unfortunate reality of the profession even for the legends within it. Missing out on this Olympics squad won’t detract from her two World Cup titles and Olympic gold medal, but it doesn’t make this apparent end for Morgan’s time with the USWNT any less harsh.

As Rapinoe said last year, moments after her final match ended with her tearing her Achilles early in her team’s NWSL Championship loss: “You don’t always get to have the perfect ending.”