The blow of the final whistle flashed Zoe Morse back to 2013. It was déjà vu. Same dripping Caribbean humidity. Same score. Same end of the field. Even the same center referee.
Above all, same scenario: a penalty kick shootout with a World Cup berth on the line.
In 2013, Zoe Morse and the U-17 Women’s National Team battled Mexico to a 1-1 draw over 90 minutes in Montego Bay, Jamaica during a CONCACAF World Cup qualifying semifinal. It was a back-and-forth game, but it came down to penalties.
Morse walked up to the spot as the team’s fourth kicker. The shootout had not gone well thus far. The USA trailed 4-2. She bounced a few paces behind the ball, started her run and fired it towards the right side of the net.
Mexico’s goalkeeper made the save. The USA was out of the World Cup.
Fast forward to Jan. 26, 2018. Now, Morse walked onto the field for another penalty kick shootout, this time after a hard-fought 90 minutes against Haiti at the semifinal of the CONCACAF Women’s U-20 Championship in Trinidad & Tobago. Again, she lined up as the team’s fourth shooter. Again, a World Cup ticket was at stake. Five years later, Morse was ready to embrace the moment.
“I’m going to change the script. Just go and make that kick,” Morse said of her thoughts as she waited for her turn to shoot. “I was like ‘You cannot think about 2013 anymore.’ That’s gone. That’s in the past. I was standing on the midline just looking at my spot. The ball is going in the back of the net, it’s hitting right there. That’s all I thought about walking up.”
Penalty kicks are often more mental than physical. Any elite player can kick a ball with pace from 12 yards, but that can be a Grand Canyon-sized chasm in the mind if a player lets it.
The 2013 CONCACAF Women’s U-17 Championship Final was a devastating moment for Morse and the U-17 WNT. The 2014 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup would be held in Costa Rica. With the host’s automatic bid, CONCACAF had just two qualifying berths from the tournament. A semifinal loss signified the end of World Cup dreams.
But on the bus ride back from the game, she was already working to figure out the dates for her next shot at World Cup qualifying. She forged the resounding disappointment into deep-set motivation. She never let that goal out of her mind as she wrapped up her youth career with the Michigan Hawks and set-off for college at the University of Virginia. She worked to get better -- and kept practicing her PKs.
“She’s focused on every detail on-the-field and off-the-field,” U-20 WNT head coach Jitka Klimkova said. “She’s a really good role model for everyone around. Her big strength is that she’s a student of the game. So many times, she’s the bridge between the coaching staff and the players.”
Morse was one of the U-17s’ younger players in 2013. It proved difficult to break in as an underaged player with the following U-20 cycle, so Morse’s next chance at major international competition would come with the 2017-18 U-20 cycle, her natural age group.
By nature, Morse sports a cool and collected persona on and off-the-field. It’s the nature of her position. As a center back, Morse serves as a composed field general, guiding the team and setting the tone from the back line. In her second World Cup qualifying go-round, she complemented her calming presence with a louder, more confident on-field voice. She captained the U-20s in their first CONCACAF match against Nicaragua.
That building confidence extended to her penalty kicks.
“As we went through the games, I knew that this scenario might come up again,” Morse said. “I knew that if I had that shot, I was going to do it how I wanted to do it this time. I’d have that last event out of my head. I’ve taken the time to practice penalty kicks and secure my routine so I’m more confident running up to the ball at the end.”
The scenario came to fruition at the infamous Ato Bolden Stadium in Couva, Trinidad, a venue where U.S. Soccer has endured its share of misfortune as of late. With a World Cup berth at stake, Haiti battled hard, frustrating the U.S. team and creating a few dangerous chances of its own with some excellent athleticism in the attacking third. The fight continued into the second half, but midfielder Jaelin Howell broke through on a remarkable individual effort to put the USA up 1-0 in the 73rd minute. Haiti, however, answered at the death, equalizing just moments before the final whistle, and the match went directly to penalty kicks. In the USA huddle near the team bench, the coaching staff announced the line-up of shooters, confirming what Morse had assumed.
After five long years, she would get another shot.
“My teammates came up to me and said, ‘You are not thinking about anything else,’” Morse said. “’This moment is all that’s in your head. You’re going to make this kick, we believe in you.’”
She didn’t even see the ball hit the back of the net. As soon as her shot rolled past the ‘keeper, she turned to see the pure joy of her teammates as they all raced towards her. The déjà vu disappeared with the drastically different result: a trip to the World Cup.
Many don’t get that chance at redemption. And when they do, many don’t handle the moment as deftly as Morse. Now, she and her teammates have earned the right to make new memories, experience new drama and pursue new glories at the 2018 FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup.
“I ran to my teammates as fast as I could,” Morse said. “They were all just in a line sprinting at me. I’d never seen anything like that before. The difference between the last tournament, seeing everyone disappointed and the pure ecstasy on everyone’s face running at me was just a great moment. I’ll never forget it.”