Interview by Emily Cohen
Alex Morgan, at age 22, was the youngest member of the USA’s runner-up squad at the 2011 Women’s World Cup, where she scored in the semifinal and final. Three years earlier, in the midst of her college career at Cal, she led the USA to the 2008 U-20 World Cup title. We asked the Southern California product to reflect on her youth soccer days and address some of the key issues facing young soccer players.
SOCCER AMERICA: Your youth soccer background is really different from what most athletes are doing today, in which they start playing club soccer as early as 8 or 9 years old. You played AYSO until you were in high school, right?
ALEX MORGAN: Yeah. I started to transition into the club scene after the AYSO season when I was 12 or 13. I tried out for a club but I wasn’t on the team. I was able to go to practice with them but the coach was just messing with me, so it was a bad first year of club. The next year, I found my team, Cypress Elite, when I was 14. That was my first club team.
SA: So you played on your high school team and Cypress Elite?
ALEX MORGAN: I did and then senior year I tore my ACL, so I didn’t play that year. But I intended on playing, so I would’ve played all four years.
SA: That’s a tough injury. How long did it take you to recover?
ALEX MORGAN: I think that 20 years ago ACL injuries were career ending injury but nowadays, not so much. I was back on the field in five months and feeling great. I wasn’t back to myself within five months but I was back playing with a brace and everything.
SA: It seems so commonplace to hear of ACL tears these days. What do you attribute that to? Do you think young athletes are training too much?
ALEX MORGAN: So many young girls and women have injured their ACL. It’s amazing how many we have on the national team and in college. I’m not sure what to attribute it to. There are some out there who say a lot of it is because our hips are wider than men, and I think a lot of times coaches don’t train their players, they don’t teach them injury prevention warm-ups. During college we started doing that, but I think if I would’ve started doing that when I was 14 years old, I could’ve possibly prevented something like that.
SA: What about the fact that kids are specializing in one sport earlier than they used to?
ALEX MORGAN: The early teens are a difficult age because definitely you want your kids to grow up and do whatever they want to do; you don’t want to push them too hard in one particular sport. My parents allowed me to play volleyball and softball and basketball and soccer at one time and I loved it. I was playing all these other sports so it wasn’t too much wear on the soccer field and it wasn’t too much wear on a repetitive exercise.
SA: So you played on your club and school soccer teams, and you continued to play volleyball and run track throughout high school, right?
ALEX MORGAN: Track was more something I did for fun; volleyball I was actually pretty committed to my freshman and sophomore year and after that time, my high school volleyball was in the same season as club soccer so I had to pretty much choose one sport from then on. I chose club soccer because I was missing either high school volleyball practice or club soccer practice and I knew I needed to choose one. After sophomore year, I stuck with soccer.
SA: So you think continuing to play multiple sports helped you in the long term?
ALEX MORGAN: For me, it helped a little bit but since I think recruiting for colleges has transitioned to an earlier age group -- it used to be 15, 16, 17 and now it’s 13, 14, 15 -- so parents and coaches are put in a difficult position where they need to ask themselves if they should push their kids a little bit harder because if they don’t an opportunity will pass them by. It’s definitely a hard decision all around whether to create more practices, have more training for kids in that age group.
SA: You hit on a really interesting point, that recruiting is happening earlier and then parents are put in this position. Do you have any advice for people on how to break the cycle?
ALEX MORGAN: You know what? I wish someone would have told me when I was going through the process that if you believe in yourself and you think that you will continue improving, colleges will wait for you. I know the recruiting process starts earlier, but from age 14 through 18 a lot can happen. You can peak at 14 and not get any better or you can be at the bottom of your team at 14 and then be at the top by age 18.
I think that happened with me; I had just started club soccer and coaches were already recruiting by then. I wasn’t even on their radar until I was 16 years old. I think you just need to believe in yourself and trust in yourself. Don’t always believe college coaches right away that you have the opportunity to get a scholarship and if you don’t take advantage of it, it’s going to go away forever. That’s not true.
Coaches see you improving, see you doing well, and they’re going to go after you. They’re going to save financial scholarships for you and they’re going to keep their eye on you every year. I think it just comes down to recognizing how much pull college coaches really have. I think that a lot of times there’s that tradition where college coaches give players ultimatums and it’s completely false. I think players can go throughout their entire high school career without committing to a college until they’re ready.
(Emily Cohen is a freelance writer living in Berkeley, Calif. She has been a team manager for her children's soccer, baseball, basketball, and softball teams -- and has a blog at TeamSnap.com.)