Bench Alex Morgan? Despite Carli Lloyd's criticism, the USWNT will need their star striker more than ever in the World Cup knockouts

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While one icon has called for change, the star striker will now need to step up and lead a sputtering attacking unit

The calls are growing louder after the United States women's national team's disappointing 0-0 draw against Portugal. It's an almost unthinkable prospect, given what we know. After all of these years, after all of these big moments, big goals and big wins, could the U.S. really bench Alex Morgan for their upcoming last-16 clash with Sweden?

That's what the legendary Carli Lloyd is calling for after a frustrating group stage, one headlined by Morgan's own struggles in front of goal. For years, Morgan has been among the top players in the sport. Whether you judge by the eye test or data, you have to put Morgan in that pantheon of attacking greats.

Yet, she's been anything but great since the World Cup began. Through three games, she's yet to find the back of the net as the USWNT attack has totally floundered. With just four total goals in three games, three of which came against Vietnam, it's safe to say attacking woes may just be their Achilles Heel this summer.

Is dropping Morgan the way to fix that and, if not, what can Vlatko Andonovski do to get more out of his superstar forward?

  1. The tournament so far

    The tournament so far

    At the time, it seemed like a blip, just one missed chance. But, with the blessing of hindsight, Morgan's missed penalty in the opening game against Vietnam looks worse and worse, doesn't it?

    With her side up a goal, Trinity Rodman was hacked down on the left-hand side. Up stepped Morgan for the ensuing penalty... saved. The score remained 1-0, as Morgan's World Cup was off to a poor start. The U.S., of course, went on to win the game 3-0, with that penalty of little consequence. But that dark cloud has seemingly hung over Morgan and the USWNT attack since the tournament started.

    Against the Netherlands, the U.S. needed Lindsey Horan to Hulk up after a Danielle van de Donk tackle to score from a set-piece. Morgan, meanwhile, saw a goal called back for a tight offside call.

    Then, against Portugal, the U.S. was held scoreless and, if not for an incredible stroke of luck and one perfectly-placed post, they'd have gone home earlier than anyone would have expected.

    Defensively, the U.S. has been solid, allowing just two big chances through this tournament so far, but, on the attacking end, this is not the U.S. team we're accustomed to seeing.

  2. Morgan's change of style

    Morgan's change of style

    American fans will remember the 'Baby Horse' version of Morgan, who used her physicality and speed to torment helpless defenders. This version, though, is something different, a bit more of a provider than in years past.

    As her career has continued, Morgan has begun to occupy a deeper role, dropping back to help create space. Morgan, of course, is a magnet for opposing defenders and, in Andonovski's system, she's used to draw out the opposition and create space for the wingers.

    But what happens when the wingers aren't able to find that space? And what happens with Morgan when the team needs a goal?

    So far, it's looked like three attackers not on the same page. Morgan is far from the only culprit in this, as the U.S. attack as a whole has looked far from World Cup-winning quality. For Morgan's new role to function as it should, all three attackers need to be playing as one, which they obviously haven't been able to do. She isn't out there trying to create goals through sheer force of will, but rather by being part of a fluid attacking unit that, so far, hasn't been very fluid.

    Still, even when Morgan has gotten her chances, she hasn't taken them. She is co-leader of this tournament in big chances missed with four in three games. Lynn Williams, meanwhile, missed three against Portugal, while six other U.S. players have missed a big chance.

    So how does the U.S. fix it? Will they continue to underperform the statistics here? Is this something that just required a bit more composure in front of goal or a total overhaul?

    Well, there is one big way to shake things up...

  3. Lloyd's analysis
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    Lloyd's analysis

    Lloyd's analysis has divided opinion this World Cup, for sure. The USWNT legend has been plenty critical of the team for a variety of reasons, and her former team-mate Morgan hasn't escaped her criticism.

    Speaking on FOX Sports ahead of the Portugal match, Lloyd said: "To spice things up a little bit, to change it up, I am going with the line-up that is behind me. I am taking Alex Morgan out. She's done well, she's occupied the center-backs, she's dragged and pulled players out and whatnot.

    "But I just feel like the three up top have been very narrow, so we need to create some width. So if we can put Sophia Smith up in the nine, on the left Trinity Rodman, on the right Lynn Williams."

    Andonovski instead decided to leave out Rodman to bring in Williams, but the possibility of Morgan being left out of the line up continues to be discussed as the knockout stages loom.

  4. Could Vlatko actually do it?

    Could Vlatko actually do it?

    It would be a massive call, for sure. For Andonovski, a coach that has repeatedly said he won't be influenced by outside critics, to drop a player that has so important for this team? It would be hard to believe.

    Does that argument have merit? Probably. The U.S. attack obviously isn't doing well and something has to change. Maybe that change is to put Smith in a central spot with Rodman and Williams on either side. It would give the U.S. a different look, for sure, and put Smith in a position where she can be at her most dangerous.

    But, like most problems with this team, fixing this particular issue with that solution only creates more issues. Moving Julie Ertz to defensive midfield creates a tidal wave at center-back, for example. Switching formations all together could leave the midfield even more exposed than it is. And benching Morgan could make an already broken attack even more broken.

    The chances have been there, which is an encouraging sign, even if there haven't been quite as many in recent years. What has been lacking has been the composure, the viciousness, the decisiveness. For young players, that's understandable. For Morgan, that's frustrating. But, even with that, you'd bet on Morgan to figure it all out based on her history.

    Benching Morgan is the nuclear option, the point of no return. Andonovski, then, will be hoping that he can get his attack humming with a few small tweaks leading up to Sunday's clash against Sweden. And, if he can't, the U.S. will be on their way out.

  5. Remaining confident

    Remaining confident

    Despite everything that's gone on, Morgan remains confident. The tournament is just beginning, after all. The group stage is the time for experimentation, the time to work out the kinks. The real tournament, the knockouts, is only just beginning.

    "It's not the result we wanted, but we move forward," Morgan said after the Portugal draw. "I know this team and I know what we're capable of, and just because it hasn't clicked every moment on the field and we're not putting the goals in the back of the net doesn't mean these aren't the right players for the job. The confidence is there and now we just have to prove it out on the field."

    She's right: the U.S. does have a lot to prove. It'll feel like the world is very much against them at the moment. Fans abroad are always rooting against a powerhouse like the USWNT, and fans at home have quickly pushed the panic button after three lackluster group stage displays.

    Morgan hasn't, and she has no reason to. She's been here before, of course. This is her fourth World Cup, after all. The USWNT has lifted the last two of them with Morgan leading the line, and their best chance at lifting a third is almost certainly with her in that role once more.