TIME

ALEX MORGAN STRIKES BACK

The soccer star is primed to lead the U.S. to victory—on and off the field

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.

“This is the first time I have ever been able to name potential winners on more than one hand,” says former U.S. player Julie Foudy, an ESPN analyst, who sees the U.S., France, Germany, Australia, Japan, England and Sweden as title threats. “Absolutely, this is the most competitive World Cup I have seen.”

Interest should be particularly high in the U.S., where the women’s team not only outperforms the men’s team on the field—the men failed to even qualify for last year’s World Cup—but has outdrawn it too. Four years ago, some 25 million people watched the women’s team beat Japan in the World Cup final—a record U.S. audience for any soccer game.

But the team’s success highlights glaring inequities. Despite the popularity of the women’s team, the men are positioned to make substantially more money. And so on March 8, International Women’s Day, the U.S. players took the unprecedented step of filing a federal gender-discrimination lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation, the national governing body for the sport. Morgan’s name was listed first in the suit, which accuses U.S. Soccer of paying “only lip service to gender equality.” (The federation, in a legal filing responding to the complaint, denied unlawful conduct, attributing any alleged pay discrepancies to “differences in the aggregate revenue generated by the different teams and/or any other factor other than sex.”)

“Eventually, you just have to take a stand,” Morgan says while riding in an Uber from her New York hotel to the driving range. “How come we’ve had to fight this whole time, year after year?”

Her stand has inspired other women’s teams around the world to push for equal treatment and has transformed the U.S. women into a cause larger than soccer. At a Los Angeles exhibition game in April, the actors Jessica Chastain, Eva Longoria, Jennifer Garner, Uzo Aduba and Natalie Portman attended with T-shirts that read Time’s Up pay Up. At a time of almost paralyzing political

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