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USWNT’s Alex Morgan finding fun amidst business at Rio Olympics

Olympic veteran Alex Morgan discusses the U.S. women’s soccer team’s performance heading into the quarterfinals, as well as how she’s spent her time off the field in Rio.

BRASÍLIA — Alex Morgan’s second Olympics is a lot different from her first one four years ago. A veteran leader now at 27, she says she stays in the hotel more this time around to focus on recovery, knowing that younger teammates are watching her as an example.

Don’t get her wrong, though, Morgan is still enjoying these Olympics. Her U.S. women’s soccer team takes on Sweden and former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage in the quarterfinals on Friday (noon ET, NBCSN). And Morgan has taken the time to absorb some Brazilian culture, regularly eating açaí bowls and even taking some samba lessons that she’s hoping she might break out for a goal celebration.

In an interview on Thursday night at the team hotel, Morgan spoke on a number of topics, including the U.S.’s performance so far, her love for scoring near-post goals, her changing role as a lone centerforward, the impact of the team’s big TV audiences on collective bargaining negotiations and the Olympic athletes in other sports that have impressed her the most.

Here’s our interview, lightly edited for length and clarity: You won your group. You’re coming off wins over New Zealand and France and a 2-2 tie against Colombia. How do you think the U.S. has played in this tournament so far?

Morgan: I think we’ve done well given what the coaches have asked of us. I feel like we played really well against New Zealand, but I felt like there was still something left to offer. I felt like going into the France game we weathered a little bit of a storm initially and got the goal and got the win. We were happy to put that behind us. With the Colombia game we knew we needed a tie or a win, so obviously it’s unfortunate for us to let in two set-piece goals because we feel like we do have a lot of aerial presence and are good ourselves with attacking and defending set-pieces. But we got the tie and we won the group, and we feel like now is when the real tournament starts. You are facing Sweden and your old U.S. coach Pia Sundhage. Sweden tied you guys in the group stage of the World Cup last year. Even though they didn’t have a great World Cup and haven’t been great so far in the Olympics, to be honest. But they seem to raise their game against the U.S. What are you expecting from Sweden?

Morgan: I think it’s a slippery slope to say that Sweden hasn’t had a good Olympics, because they always show up against us. For this game I’m looking forward to a physical game, but also I hope that we can just play our style and possess in the midfield. With the players that we have, we should be able to dominate in the midfield. We should have the aerial presence that we need for the crosses. We should have the quick players on the outside to get by their outside backs. And we have the best defenders in the world, including Hope [Solo in goal]. So it should be a good game for us, but Sweden comes to play. We know that. So for a lot of us there’s just excitement and a little bit of nerves as well. Because for many of these players it’s their first time playing in a major tournament or an Olympics in an elimination round. So it’s fun, but this is going to be a good challenge for us regardless of how Sweden did the last three games. How has this Olympic experience been for you in comparison to 2012, in terms of leadership and how you might see this tournament with veteran eyes compared to rookie eyes?

Morgan: I feel like this tournament is a little bit different, because in 2012 I felt like I was like a sponge learning and taking everything in and exploring and enjoying having my family around. Enjoying just the experience. I feel like this time around this is a job that we need to get done. I feel like I’m more just ready to get the work in and I’m less excited about exploring different parts of Brazil and the cities that we’re in. I just want us to be on the top of the podium at the end of the day. And I feel like for me feeling healthy going into this tournament and being a veteran, I know that the things that I do are looked at by teammates. Whether I go outside of the hotel on our couple hours off or whether I stay in and do recovery methods or pull an icebath, whatever it may be, I feel like the veteran players are being watched. So in that regard I’m trying to be as professional as I can and make sure that my legs are recovered for every game.

USWNT draws to win Olympic group but gets wake-up call from Colombia So you’ve been to some pretty wild locales in this trip so far, especially Manaus in the Amazon. You were in Belo Horizonte, we’re in Brasília now. You’re hoping to get to Rio. But what you’re saying is you’re not doing a heck of a lot of exploring in these places.

Morgan: No, we got into Belo a week before the games started, so we got to explore a little bit because it was pretty light training leading into this tournament. But once the games started, I’ve really stayed at the hotel. My family have wanted me to come out and get coffee with them or do whatever, but I’ve honestly just had them come to the hotel, and I’ll see them for 45 minutes or so and say goodbye and go back to my recovery or whatever I’m doing. So it’s been a little bit of a different mindset. But I’m happy with it, just because I feel like I’m doing everything I can to feel ready to play 90 minutes for six games. After you scored near-post against New Zealand, you said something to me that you like beating goalkeepers near-post. For goalkeepers, that’s a pretty big no-no to get beat near-post. Why do you get so much satisfaction out of it?

Morgan (smiles): I think I love beating goalkeepers near-post so much because when I was growing up I felt like it was always “shoot far post” because the keeper is always going to have the near post covered. So when you find a keeper cheating to kind of cover the far post a little bit, I feel like you want to show her that you’re catching her cheating. You want to be able to prove that. So with me, I feel like beating a keeper near-post is so gratifying for me because you can’t cheat: As a keeper, as a field player positionally. Or else the best players are going to catch you doing that. I feel like a near-post goal is awesome to just be able to get in an Olympics. But I feel like even during training when I beat Hope or Alyssa [Naeher] near-post I think they hate it a little bit more than when we score on them otherwise, because they know that I love it even more.

Culture Carrier: Even as alternate, O’Reilly aiding USWNT however she can These days you’re more of a lone centerforward than one of two like you have been more in the past. How exactly is your job different as a lone centerforward?

Morgan: I think it’s pretty different, actually, and it took a little while for me to adjust to playing lone forward. I feel like you have to be unpredictable in your runs, but I feel like when there’s a back line that’s only worrying about you, then your runs tend to be predictable. So I feel like you have to connect not only with the other forward if you’re in a two-front, but being a lone forward you have to connect with the wingers, you have to connect with the attacking mids. Because when you’re checking to the ball you have to expect that someone else is trying to get in behind. And when you’re getting behind you have to expect that someone is checking to the ball off of the back line in order to have that push and pull with the defense.

So I feel like it’s a little bit different you have to be more in tune with the rest of the team. Whereas with the two-front it’s kind of just opposite movement: When one player checks, the other player gets in behind, and vice-versa. Sometimes you criss-cross. But I feel like it’s just a little bit different of a game and sometimes a little more frustrating, because you don’t get the ball as frequently. The U.S. has had big TV audiences for these games, especially the last game, averaging 3.6 million people on the NBCSN broadcast. It’s only going to get bigger in this tournament. Is that something you’ll plan to use in your CBA negotiations with U.S. Soccer?

Morgan: Well, I saw that in 2012 the 3.6 million viewership for this last game against Colombia, that would have been our highest viewership except for the final in London. So for that viewership in a group-stage game to beat our semifinal game against Canada [in 2012], you can just see that it’s going to continue to grow for the quarters and hopefully semis and final as well. But I think everything we do to continue growing the game in the U.S. and showing the federation that we’re deserving of equal pay and deserving of pay that is fair to us, I feel like that’s always good for negotiations. And I think this will be something that is to our advantage. It only continues to grow the viewership that we’re getting, so I can’t see it as a negative.

After rare game to forget, Hope Solo aiming to put mistakes behind her If you win this game in the quarterfinal, you get to go to the semifinals. They would be in Rio at the Maracanã, one of the great stadiums in world soccer. When you’re sort of away as you have been this entirety of the Olympics from the main city, do you find yourself really wanting to get there as soon as possible?

Morgan: Yeah, I feel like honestly the Olympics have been so distant for us, and I feel like so many of the events that Brazil is good at are on TV here, that we have to livestream other events that the U.S. is good at. Like beach volleyball or swimming or gymnastics sometimes aren’t on the main channels here. So for us we want to be part of that community. We want to be a part of Team USA. And as much as we are, it feels like we are a little distant from them, both physically and just in terms of us not having met any of the other athletes really. Or even been to Rio yet. So it would be exciting to get there. We obviously have to do business here in Brasília, but I’m looking forward to getting to Rio and actually spending more time there with the draw of us being in Rio for semis and final, rather than just the final. That’s something where I looked forward to getting first in our group and being on this side of the bracket and getting to Rio for semis and final. But we’re not really looking too far ahead, because we have to get the job done here in Brasília. I know you’ve been watching the Olympics a fair amount on television here. Who are the Olympic athletes outside of soccer that you’ve been most impressed by?

Morgan: We are in awe of the [U.S.] gymnasts. They’re incredible. And just seeing them kind of sweep the individual and team all-around was amazing. But also just the swimmers, beach volleyball with [Kerri] Walsh-Jennings and [April] Ross dominating like they usually do, although Kerri Walsh-Jennings dropped her second set ever in the Olympics, which was also crazy to hear. But just seeing Katie Ledecky and people live up to expectations has been amazing. Because I know a lot of times the pressure can get to someone, especially 16, 17 or 18 years old on such a stage like the Olympics. To see all these people living up to expectations has been incredible, because I feel like we’ve all been on this journey together supporting each other over the last six months that it took for Team USA to form for the Olympics. But I feel like it’s been incredible to see the people that were so hyped by media and by coaches and everyone do well has done well.

Brazil's white elephant soccer stadiums hardly worth their exorbitant costs Lastly, I know you’ve been very business-like during this tournament, but it seems like you’ve absorbed a couple things from Brazilian culture. I’ve seen social media posts going to a couple açaí shops and also some samba lessons. Fill me in.

Morgan (laughs): Yeah. Samba is something that me and Allie Long really wanted to learn. Well, Allie claims that she kind of knows how to samba, which is kind of true. But we started to learn because we wanted to do it in our talent show that we had created with the national team to pass the time before the Olympics. But [watching] on YouTube we just couldn’t understand the steps, so a Brazilian reporter got wind of it and decided to invite a samba band and instructor to our hotel and teach us how to samba. And so there were about eight of us that partook in that lesson. And it was fun. I feel like we’ve been waiting to do that as a goal celebration. It hasn’t come yet, so maybe next game. So that’s something that has been exciting in Brazil, something I’ve kind of embraced.

But I love açaí bowls. They’re so good. And it’s hard to find them in the U.S. I feel like in Florida I haven’t even found them yet, and in California there’s one in Manhattan Beach, one place that I go to whenever I’m back in Manhattan Beach. But they’re literally on every corner here, and they’re delicious. I think they’re healthy. I’m just going to tell myself that they’re extremely healthy. Because I pretty much had one every day in Belo Horizonte.