KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — As a wave of energetic young players make inroads with the U.S. national team, Alex Morgan admitted to feeling a bit of pressure from coach Jill Ellis to continue to perform at a high level.
Hard to get much higher than Thursday night.
Morgan capped a seemingly effortless hat trick by converting off a dazzling piece of footwork by Tobin Heath, and along with Megan Rapinoe led the Americans to a 4-2 victory over Japan in their opening match of the four-team Tournament of Nations.
“I feel like Jill has set a precedent of change within this team over the last couple of years,” Morgan said, “and I feel like she’s put a lot of pressure on the older players to continue to perform. We have a lot of younger players with a lot of energy and desire to make this national team, obviously make the World Cup team, so for me it’s to continue to score — continue to get on the scoreboard.”
She did that three times before Carli Lloyd replaced her in the 73rd minute.
Morgan scored her first goal in the 18th when she flicked a nifty pass from Rapinoe past Japanese goalkeeper Ayaka Yamashita. And her second came a scant eight minutes later, when Emily Sonnett gathered a cross from Crystal Dunn and popped it ahead to Morgan, who headed in the goal.
The hat trick was complete after Heath, who had just entered as a substitute, made two Japanese defenders look foolish along the end line. She then swung a centering pass that was deflected to Morgan, who deposited it for her first three-goal game since Olympic qualifying in February 2016.
“There’s a hunger and a work ethic and she makes things happen,” Ellis said. “She’s such a dynamic player to run in behind and cause problems that way. I also think back to pressure, she’s got better at that. She’s just taken a big step forward and embraced the role of being a goal scorer on this team.
“We have a pretty potent offense,” Ellis said, “but I think Alex is just locked on.”
Rapinoe added her own goal — and a bizarre, foot-stomping celebration afterward — in the 66th minute as the U.S. team ramped up the offense just as it begins ramping up for World Cup qualifying.
They can secure their spot next year in France during the CONCACAF tournament in October.
“This tournament is a really good warmup for qualifiers,” Rapinoe said. “We have quite a few players who have never been through one, so to get the feeling of play, travel, play and have something on the line — it’s a bit of a fabricated tournament, but we want to win.
“So starting to string together performances, learning how to back up games, that’s important.”
The Americans haven’t lost since dropping their opening match of the same tournament to Australia last year. The rematch of those powerhouses is Sunday in East Hartford, Connecticut, after the Matildas opened the defense of their Tournament of Nations title with a 3-1 victory over Brazil on Thursday.
The performance by Ellis’s squad Thursday night wasn’t entirely without fault.
After scoring the opener on Morgan’s quick-twitch flick, the U.S. defense quickly broke down, and Mini Tanaka beat defender Abby Dahlkemper and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher for a matching goal.
Then, midway through the second half, Japan’s Moeno Sakaguchi made a nifty move against Heath before sending a curling shot into the upper corner of the net to trim a three-goal deficit to two.
Still, it was a solid performance by the Americans in what has become a competitive rivalry with Japan. The teams split matches in the past two World Cup finals, and the U.S. beat Asia’s top team in the gold medal match at the 2012 London Olympics.
Earlier Thursday, Australia built on an own-goal by Poliana and another mistake by the Brazilian defender in cruising to a 3-1 victory to open the tournament at Children’s Mercy Park.
Tameka Butt added a goal and an assist for the Matildas, who now set their sights on the Americans.
“We don’t lose that often,” Rapinoe said, “so we generally remember who we lose to. They’re obviously a good team. They’re all like, 22 and have seven world championships under their belts. I don’t know how they do it. But they’re a very good squad and for sure a contender heading into France.”
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