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Thorns, US team await Alex Morgan's return

(AP Photo/Darren Abate, File)

By BY ANNE M. PETERSON

AP Sports Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) Alex Morgan can't come back fast enough for the Portland Thorns.

Portland's NWSL team is struggling without its star forward as she rehabs from a left ankle injury she sustained while training with the U.S. national team last fall.

Morgan is oh-so-close close to her return. She was a reserve but did not play in the Thorns' 1-0 loss at home Saturday night against Sky Blue FC.

It's important that she's not rushed into playing. The U.S. team is going to need Morgan in a big way as it begins its preparations for the women's World Cup in 2015.

The Thorns, winners of last season's inaugural NWSL championship, are in fourth place at 4-2-2, trailing the undefeated Seattle Reign, the Chicago Red Stars and FC Kansas City.

Following the loss to Sky Blue, the team's second loss at home this season, Thorns coach Paul Riley was sticking to the script and proceeding cautiously with Morgan.

"It would've been nice to throw Alex on," Riley said. "I think she could've won the game for us in those last 10 minutes."

Riley has said he's been holding out Morgan until a June 7 game against Western New York. But some are speculating he may use her off the bench for a few minutes during Wednesday night's match at the Boston Breakers.

Morgan led the Thorns last season with eight goals and five assists, while Canadian national team striker Christine Sinclair had eight goals and two assists. Portland finished with an 11-6-5 overall record.

Adding to Portland's desire for Morgan's return is the struggle that Sinclair has had on offense this season.

Sinclair, whom U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo recently called the world's best female player, hasn't scored yet, her runs coming up empty in a combination of poor timing and bad luck.

"It does get a little frustrating, but maybe there's something I need to do differently, maybe demand it more from my teammates. We're growing," Sinclair said.

The U.S. women's team resumes play with two exhibition matches against France, the first in Tampa, Florida, on June 14.

It will be the national team's first match since Jill Ellis was appointed coach for the push to the World Cup next year. Ellis was the interim coach after Tom Sermanni was surprisingly dismissed in April after an exhibition victory against China.

Ellis says she will begin bringing the team together as a group on June 8 in preparation for those matches.

Beyond that, the top-ranked United States will host the eight-team CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament in October. The venues and schedule have yet to be determined.

Despite the team's success on the international stage in recent years, the U.S. women haven't won a World Cup title since 1999. Japan won the 2011 World Cup in Germany, defeating the United States on a penalty shootout following a 2-2 draw. Morgan was the youngest player on that squad.

Morgan, who was on the team that won the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics, figures to be a key part of the United States' World Cup hopes - if she's healthy, Ellis said.

"She's a big piece of the puzzle," Ellis said after becoming national coach.

Morgan is up for the challenge, taking to Twitter shortly after Ellis' permanent appointment.

"Coach. Check. Congrats Jill! Now, time to put all focus into World Cup Qualifiers this fall! (hash)USWNT (hash)WWC2015," she wrote.

Updated May 27, 2014

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