Jennifer Buchanan/Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports
When Jordan Morris first joined the Seattle Sounders this season, he very much looked like the rookie he was.
He hesitated to take on defenders and often checked back, eager for his teammates to take the lead in transition. He got by mostly on pure athleticism and speed, rather than any of the more refined qualities a goal-scorer on the soccer pitch might have.
In short, he didn’t seem like a leader on the field. But now, some eight months later, through a combination of hard work and unexpected responsibilities thrown on his shoulders, he has blossomed into a leader and more.
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Morris scored his first playoff goal for the Sounders on Tuesday for a 2-1 finish over the Rapids, which sets the Sounders up nicely for the second leg of the Western Conference in Colorado next week. Morris has had a pretty good playoffs so far, notching an assist in the previous round against Dallas, but the playoff goal means a lot.
That’s because the 22-year-old entered MLS with enormous expectations brought on by his appearances for the national team, including his memorable first goal against Mexico, and the fact that he declined an offer to play in the Bundesliga. On top of that, he was given more responsibility than is typical for a rookie due to Clint Dempsey often being absent and Nelson Valdez struggling badly, both of them Designated Players and forwards.
Morris ended up as the Sounders’ leading goal-scorer this this season, tallying 12 goals and assisting on four others. He set records as the rookie with the most-ever game-winning goals and the top goal-scoring American rookie. But most importantly, he has evolved and matured into the sort of well-rounded soccer player who is scoring goals in the playoffs and driving his team forward.
A big part of that has been his growing confidence and versatility. He started the season on the right flank in a 4-3-3 and, while he had the pace and athleticism for the role, he didn’t have enough creativity or technical ability to be very effective there. He was moved to the center forward spot and he looked more comfortable closer to goal. As more and more was asked of him – particularly when Dempsey was sidelined for the season and Morris became a lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 system – Morris pushed himself to evolve his game.
While many fans and critics focused on his finishing and the fact that he favored his right foot too much, he was working on finishing – and just about everything else. His decision-making is quicker, his off-the-ball movement is smarter, his hold-up play more effective, and his passing shows better awareness.
Coach Brian Schmetzer made the decision in these playoffs to move Morris back onto the wing to make way for a suddenly-resurgent Valdez, a decision that could’ve gone poorly if it looked like Morris’ stints along the flank earlier this season. But he was more dynamic, able to use the wide spaces more effectively and attack in unpredictable ways. He single-handedly created a Nicolas Lodeiro goal against Dallas in the previous round by running about 50 yards, cutting through a defender and delivering a perfect cross.
He was again effective on the wing in lifting the Sounders past the Colorado Rapids on Tuesday, and the Sounders are one match closer to landing in the MLS Cup. The Sounders, for all their success, have never made it to the MLS Cup, and if Morris helped guide them there after a rocky season that included a coaching change, that’d certainly be something special.
But Morris’ growth and maturity within a single season should carry him for seasons to come, whether the Sounders make it to the MLS Cup or not. We don’t know where Morris’ ceiling is yet, but if he can keep refining his ability at his current rate, he should be contending for titles again and again. The kid is still an athlete, but he’s lot more now after an impressive year that would be considered a success for any rookie.