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Alex Morgan of the USA during a training session at Borussia-Park on July 12, 2011 in Moenchengladbach, Germany. (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)

Alex Morgan might wear a girlish pink headband, pose for Sports Illustrated with a flashing smile and spend lots of time with pig-tailed fans who follow her every move.

But face it: the rising star of American soccer isn't trying to win a beauty pageant.

U.S. coach Pia Sundhage discovered what lies underneath the veneer in January when asking Morgan how she felt about getting benched one game during Olympic qualifying.

The reply was as frosty as a meat locker.

It was, in fact, just what Sundhage hoped to inspire after not playing the Cal graduate against Mexico. Call it a motivational ploy or a boot in the behind. Since the Jan. 24 benching, Morgan has been on a tear with 13 goals in 10 matches.

"Alex wants to be one of the best players," Sundhage said. "You can tell."

After the exchange with her coach she scored twice in the United States' 4-0 victory over host Canada in the tournament final.

Morgan, 22, has started every match since Canada and is expected to play a big role this summer as the United States goes for its third consecutive Olympic gold medal.

"I was a little emotional like every player gets now and then," Morgan said of not playing that one game.

Now her coach knows the sturdy 5-foot-7 forward can handle honest evaluations as Morgan strives to elevate her game and perhaps emerge as the biggest American star since frontline mate Abby Wambach. She already has 24 goals and 11 assists in 39 international appearances.


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Morgan's ascent from super sub at the Women's World Cup last year to starter has forced U.S. coaches to tinker with their formation heading into the Olympic opener July 25 against France.

The United States had relied on an unconventional lineup that featured Wambach as the lone striker. But Sundhage likes the way Morgan and Wambach work in tandem so she switched to a basic alignment to take advantage of their relentless attacking.

The change has sent former starter Amy Rodriguez to the sideline. But nothing is assured because of the depth among the forwards. Recent UCLA graduate Sydney Leroux and Rodriguez are waiting if Morgan stumbles. Also, American coaches finally are giving former Stanford star Christen Press a serious look as an Olympic alternate.

For now, most eyes are on Morgan as the United States has three exhibition matches this month before the London Games begin.

Although the Americans are ranked No. 1, World Cup champion Japan is the prohibitive Olympic favorite.

"They are definitely on our radar all the time," Morgan said. "They have proven themselves over and over again."

So has Morgan, who left Cal in 2010 with 45 career goals and a degree in political economy.

"I was impressed from the very moment when I saw her in the box," Sundhage said.

But the coach didn't want to thrust Morgan into a starting role without grooming her for the world stage. As a result Morgan gained attention in 2010 as a substitute who changed U.S. fortunes when scoring the goal that qualified the country for the World Cup.

Morgan endeared herself to teammates last summer in Germany by accepting her secondary role. Then the Southern Californian became an overnight sensation by scoring late goals in the semifinals and final.

"Every time she came off the bench she was just such a lift," veteran defender Rachel Buehler said.

Morgan understands how her heart-stopping play transcends soccer. She is following the example set by Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and the rest of the women from the famous World Cup-winning team of 1999.

Being a role model led Morgan to seriously consider the ramifications before agreeing to a Sports Illustrated bathing suit spread this spring that showed her in body paint. A New York Times column chastised Morgan for reinforcing "the unfortunate notion that to be successful, female athletes must position themselves as sex objects."

She views the double standard differently.

"Anything we do is wrong," Morgan said. "If we want to display our bodies and show that we are strong, athletic women and we have nothing to hide, that's wrong. If we want to hide something and are not feeling comfortable then that's also wrong."

There has been nothing wrong with how Morgan has embraced her newfound celebrity. Although she is on a road to international stardom the forward has not forgotten what it took to get there.

Perhaps the strongest reminder is how she missed much of her senior season at Diamond Bar High in 2007 after partially tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee. The injury knocked her out of national team consideration for 11/2 years. Morgan also worried she would lose her college scholarship because the injury occurred a month before signing day.

"It just breaks you down mentally," she said.

The experience led the striker to reach out to a New York teen who suffered a similar fate last year. Morgan heard about Brittany Houghton's knee injury while playing for the Western New York Flash in the now-defunct Women's Professional Soccer league.

The player sent Houghton an inspiring email five days after her surgery: "I want to first tell you that tearing your ACL will not be the end of your career. You decide your destiny."

The gesture has had a lasting impact on Houghton, who plans to play at Division II Roberts Wesleyan College in the fall.

"She sent it during the perfect time," said Houghton, of Webster, N.Y. "You're lying in bed with nothing to do but sit there and think."

Morgan became a different player after the only major injury of her career. Before it happened soccer had been something to do for fun. But as soon as Morgan started rehabilitation she "never worked so hard for one thing."

Morgan arrived at Cal in good shape and with a sense of purpose about what it takes to master soccer. Her knowledge of the game grew after she started watching international games on television with boyfriend Servando Carrasco and other members of the Bears men's team.

The couple now reside in soccer-crazy Seattle where they play for the Sounders FC men's and women's teams.

About the only activity they stopped doing together is playing board games. Carrasco found his girlfriend a tad too competitive.

But that's understandable. Morgan wants an Olympic gold medal around her neck, not a Miss Congeniality crown on her head.

Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865 and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/elliottalmond.