PORTLAND, Ore. — The atmosphere here is probably just what Jordan Morris dreamt of when he thought about going pro.
Traveling supporters for the Seattle Sounders take up one corner of Providence Park for chanting and flag-waving while Portland Timbers fans occupy the entire opposite end of the stadium. This Sunday afternoon, it’s a big rivalry match and it feels like it — and there would be no better time in Morris’ young career to score a goal in a Sounders shirt.
For the 21-year-old Morris, his golden opportunity comes in the 17th minute. He is open and lets a skipping pass bounce past his left foot and fires with his right. The shot sails wide past the far post. Morris never seems to recover or find his way back into the match after that moment, and the Sounders lose.
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In the locker room afterward, he is crestfallen. The bandage he wore over his arm during the match is gone and there is a still-healing tattoo there, skin peeling around it. It’s an intricate illustration and underneath is two words: carpe diem. Without knowing why he chose that tattoo, it would seem fitting for a striker regardless.
Asked by FOX Soccer how he felt the 3-1 loss went, Morris summarizes it like this: "It’s the same kind of story all year: We’re playing well and then I have a big chance to score a goal and change the game and put it 1-0 — I’ve got to do better there." In a follow-up question, he says something similar: "It’s a bummer because we played so well and then I don’t finish my chances and we come out with a loss, so it’s frustrating."
That Morris is willing to take sole blame for the Sounders loss may say something about his character, but it also raises a point about the make-up of the Sounders squad this year. The team has few goal-scoring outlets other than the rookie and it lacks a much-needed playmaker who can provide service to strikers like Morris. If you discount a blowout match against a mostly reserve FC Dallas — an anomaly, to be sure — Morris has scored about half of the Sounders’ goals this year.
Jordan Morris picks himself up from inside the net after missing a scoring opportunity. (Photo by Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports)
Pinning the team’s fate entirely on him may not seem fair, but in the Sounders’ six total wins this season, Morris has scored in five of them, the lone exception being the only match all season he came on as a substitute. Yet, he was not the only one to miss a golden chance to score on Sunday. Nelson Valdez, the high-priced Designated Player who has been a striker in the Bundesliga, also missed a wide-open sitter. Valdez has scored zero goals all season and only one since joining the Sounders last August.
Morris has at times been a lone bright spot for the Sounders with seven goals halfway through his debut season. He is an incomplete player who needs to improve his touch and work on his hold-up play, but in terms of attacking threats this year, Morris is Seattle’s most productive one — and it’s not even close. Clint Dempsey has three goals and, though he has been absent often, he is scoring at a slower rate than Morris.
"He’s been averaging, since the start of the season, a goal every other game, which is a pretty good strike rate, especially for a rookie," Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said after Sunday’s game when asked about the missed shot and Morris’ development.
Still, Morris will be thinking about that miss for a while.
"I probably should’ve hit it left-footed," he told FOX Soccer afterward. "I don’t know if I had time to take a touch or not, but it happened so fast, I probably should’ve just taken it left-footed."
Of all the criticism heaped on the young striker, his preference for using his right foot is perhaps the most popular one. When U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann kept Morris off the Copa America Centenario roster, he later mentioned that as something he wanted to see Morris improve.
It doesn’t seem to be anything the right-footed striker hasn’t heard before, though. He admits: "It’s one of the biggest parts of my game that I need to continue to develop, being able to finish."
Schmid agreed separately in comments Morris didn’t hear — he thought the Stanford alum should’ve probably taken the shot with his left foot. But he dismissed the idea that it was affecting Morris’ production in front of goal.
"I don’t care if he uses his left or the outside of his right," Schmid said. "Nobody asks Messi to use his right foot, do they? It doesn’t matter to me as long as you put the ball in the back of the net."
The criticism, it seems, is borne out of the high expectations for Morris — expectations that seemed impossible for the youngster to meet ever since he scored against Mexico in his first start for the U.S. national team. It’s less about Morris than it is about the constant search for the Next Big Thing as once-promising American prospects fail to deliver.
Jordan Morris has nine caps with the USMNT.
American soccer fans will probably always want Morris to do more. But even putting Morris’ rookie season into perspective tends to come with its own set of expectations and pressure. You could point out that Morris has scored as many goals in his first 19 games as Landon Donovan did in 22 games in his rookie season in MLS — but implicit in that is the notion that Morris should turn into the next great American soccer legend.
That’s not really a reasonable thing to expect. Yet here he is, being burdened with carrying the Sounders, historically one of the most successful clubs in MLS, and being hyped as one of the big future hopes of the U.S. national team.
When Dempsey returns to the Sounders, the goal-scoring burden will be more of a shared one than it has been this summer. But asked about the pressure of being the one expected to score goals on a team that isn’t working very well in the attack, Morris suggested that there are no excuses.
"You’re going to have to step up," he said. "Teams are going to change, lineups are going to change, things aren’t always going to be 100 percent, so you just have to step up and take that challenge."