U.S. women's national team star Alex Morgan points to the next drill… (Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los…)
It was just before 8 o'clock Saturday morning when Alex Morgan, teetering on crutches and wearing a protective left boot over her left ankle, hobbled onto the synthetic field at Veterans Park in Pomona to the sound of 120 grade-school girls gasping and giggling with excitement.
"It's like the Beatles," one parent whispered.
No, it's more than that. Among the preteen soccer set, Morgan, star of the women's national team, is much bigger than a mere rock star. Just ask 10-year-old Kira Cafferty, who turned down tickets to see the heartthrob boy band One Direction and instead flew from New Jersey to spend the weekend at Morgan's first soccer camp.
"Two of her friends got One Direction tickets," says Kira's mom, Maureen. "I said 'Are you disappointed?' She said, 'Oh, no, Mom. I am so thrilled.'"
And on Saturday so was Morgan, whose Cover Girl looks and Cristiano Ronaldo moves have made her both the face and the future of women's soccer in this country. Last month, at 24, she became the youngest player, male or female, named to U.S. Soccer's centennial all-star team. And with 44 goals in 70 games, she's on pace to become the second-leading scorer in U.S. history.
At the moment, however, she's chasing a slightly more modest accomplishment.
"I just wanted a chance to be able to give back," she says of the inspiration for her inaugural camp. "To be able to meet some of the younger girls that are going to grow up and take my place one day on the team."
Kaila Mott, 13, who endured a 10-hour drive from Chico, cried when her parents told her she would be attending.
"The reaction we got out of her was the best Christmas gift for us," says her mother, Lisa Forrest. "She was speechless, which our daughter never is."
Silence wasn't exactly what Morgan was hoping for when she wandered into a gaggle of star-struck campers and asked for questions. Finally someone mustered the courage to ask about her ankle, which didn't heal properly after an October injury and now requires several weeks of immobilization.
"So take care of your injuries," she offers by way of advice.
If Morgan has struggled with the idea of rehabbing injuries, she has clearly embraced her status as a role model for young girls, dozens of whom showed up Saturday in miniature national team jerseys with Morgan's No. 13 and wearing a Morgan-style hair band.
Though imitation may be a form of flattery, it can also be unnerving.
"It's funny because when I was younger, I wanted to become a professional soccer player. But I never ever thought about the responsibility that came along with it," she says. "What I love most is just being on the soccer field and learning and teaching. So if I can have a whole weekend teaching a couple of kids a couple of my drills and techniques I learned when I was younger, then I'll feel good at the end of the weekend."
Saturday morning's three-hour morning clinic was a first for Morgan, who got help from U.S. teammates Kelley O'Hara and Meghan Klingenberg and fiance Servando Carrasco, who plays for Major League Soccer's Houston Dynamo. It was followed by an afternoon session for an additional 200 campers; morning and afternoon camps were also scheduled for Sunday.
Morgan is following a well-worn path blazed by other former and current women's national team players, including Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Abby Wambach, Christine Rampone and Megan Rapinoe, who have all held instructional camps. So although male players and coaches have paid lip service to the idea of supporting youth soccer at the grass-roots level, the women have actually done the heavy lifting.
"When I was younger, I definitely looked up to Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly," says Morgan, who grew up in Diamond Bar, practicing three days a week with her father Mike. "When I met Kristine Lilly when I was about 15 years old, it was a real eye-opener for me. And that's what I want for these young girls and boys. I want them to become more passionate about the game.
"And whether I can help them or not, I want this to be a steppingstone for them."
Joe Forrest, Kaila Mott's father, was looking for just such a change when he spent nearly $600 to register his daughter in all four camp sessions.
"I want her to find confidence. To believe that she can," he says. "The passion. That's what we want her to find. And she won't find it unless she sees it, is part of it."
Bridget Gleason of Cape Cod, Mass., who squeezed onto the last plane out of snowbound Boston to make it to Saturday's first camp, is taking home a different memory.
"I thought it was really good that she interacted with us," the 11-year-old says of Morgan. "And she actually talked to us. Personally."
Just try that with One Direction.