Jordan Morris is shining in the Sounders and American soccer spotlight
Keep turning something upside-down, and there’s a chance it’ll emerge right-side-up—especially if it has a sturdy base.
“Jordan [Morris] has a really good idea of who he is and what he needs to do,” Seattle Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey says. “He is a more mature kid and I think that’s been borne out as he’s been buffeted by all these forces during the year. Combine that with his phenomenal work ethic and his willingness to listen and learn, and he has a really good chance to succeed.”
Success is in the eye of the beholder, of course. And the initial verdict on the Sounders’ 2016 season—and just about everyone associated with it—won’t be read until Sunday afternoon, when their game against Real Salt Lake concludes and the Decision Day dust settles. At stake is Seattle’s streak of seven consecutive MLS playoff berths (it’s nine if you include the USL years) and perhaps the long-term direction of arguably the league’s most scrutinized club.
The 40,000-plus who fill CenturyLink Field power an incandescent spotlight. No American soccer team benefits from a combination of market size and interest like that which the Sounders enjoy. But it comes at a price. Expectations and standards are high, the fan base is demanding and the local press pays close attention.
Former head coach Sigi Schmid was fired halfway through his first poor season on the Sounders bench. Interim manager Brian Schmetzer is 7-2-4 at the helm and has helped guide the Rave Green back into playoff contention, but his future still may hinge on Sunday’s result. Win and the Sounders (13-14-6) are in. Tie or lose to RSL, and Sporting Kansas City and the rival Portland Timbers could pass them. That would bring the heat to Lagerwey’s door as well, not to mention a potential reckoning up and down the Sounders’ roster.
On Wednesday, The Seattle Times declared that “Failure … would have lasting consequences.”
If you want pressure, there it is.
The notion that Morris, 21, would encounter that sort of crucible only in Europe ignores his unique circumstances. He’s Seattle born and bred. Those 40,000 fans are his neighbors. He was one of them not long ago. Before he scored against Mexico on his senior U.S. national team debut and before he was an NCAA champion at Stanford, Morris was a member of the Sounders’ academy. His father, Michael, is the club physician. Lagerwey and Schmid committed to Morris in January, inking him to the richest homegrown contract in league history. The club and city are invested.
Had he signed with Werder Bremen following his brief January trial, Morris would be competing for minutes in relative anonymity. He’d be just another young foreigner with potential acquired by a big European club. It wouldn’t be easy, but the pressure largely would be limited to that which was self-imposed. By choosing the Sounders, he opted for that Seattle spotlight. And now, after a rookie season featuring challenges and hurdles that even his most cautious advisor couldn’t have anticipated, it’s upon Morris’s young but broad shoulders that the Sounders scoring burden falls.
That’s where he wants it.
“Even though there’s been ups and downs, I’m pretty happy with how things have gone,” Morris told SI.com. “I’ve learned that’s the life of professional sports. Things change quickly and you’ve just got to adapt and run with it. Honestly, I think it’s only going to help my development, having that responsibility, because it forces me to perform every single game. So, I definitely didn’t think that this is how the season was going to go. But before the season if someone had told me I’d be starting and trying to be the guy who scored the goals, I would’ve said, ‘That sounds awesome.’”
After an initial flurry that included a packed introductory press conference and the requisite Space Needle photo shoot, Morris settled in for a season during which he figured he’d be brought along gradually, biding his time behind star strikers Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins and learning under Schmid’s familiar guidance. That plan didn’t last long.
Martins bolted for the Chinese Super League in February and suddenly, Morris was a starter. But he wasn’t playing high and central and had difficulty finding both the game and his confidence while deployed in a wider role. American soccer’s next big thing went scoreless in his first five games, the Sounders went 1-3-1 and the criticism ramped up. And he took every miss hard.
“I knew that coming out of college there’d be expectations and stuff like that. What I didn’t know, I guess, is that I’d be thrust into playing right away because Obafemi left and things changed a little bit. That was exciting,” Morris said.
It was also stressful. Morris said he remembered Fox analyst Alexi Lalas saying there would be more pressure playing in Seattle than in Germany because of all the people focusing on him every week. He soon understood what that entailed.
“It forces you to feel that pressure,” Morris said.
He read the critiques and commentary at first.
“The first five, six games when things weren’t going well, people were pretty harsh. It was tough on me. It’s obviously a different atmosphere and lifestyle than college in terms of all that stuff, but after that I realized I can’t control it. It’s only going to affect me negatively. So I’ve stopped reading and just focus on my game. And I think that’s helped a lot.
“Everyone’s allowed to have their opinion,” he continued. “That’s fine. Obviously, I’m not going to necessarily agree with people and it can get frustrating when people that haven’t been in your situation, that don’t know what’s going on, that don’t really have all the details necessarily, are constantly judging you and critiquing you. Because I know if the situation was flipped and you came at them, they couldn’t take it. That can be frustrating. But it’s part of the environment and something you’ve got to learn how to deal with.”
The Stanford kid learned fast. He shut out the criticism and then quickly handled the deep disappointment of failing to qualify for the Olympics with the U.S. U-23s.
“You grow up wanting to go to the Olympics. You grow up watching it. It would have been awesome," he said. "I was sad for a little bit. Obviously, this is your job now. You’re a professional. You’ve got to flip the switch and I tried to do that as best I could.”
He found refuge and gathered strength at home in Mercer Island with his family and his dogs, eliminated the noise and started finding the net. On April 16, a couple weeks after his Olympic dream was dashed, Morris scored his first goal in a 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Union. He struck again the following week, and then again the week after that. On May 7, he became the first MLS rookie to score in four straight games. Then the next hammer blow fell, and he was left off the Copa América Centenario roster. Absent Dempsey, who was away during the tournament, Seattle went 1-3-1 and Morris scored twice.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann was clear that Morris wasn’t the finished product, telling The Wall Street Journal, “Jordan knows he has to become a two-way player, has to learn [to handle] high pressure, how to defend and how to make decisions, when to pass and when to cross. He has to improve his left foot, his aerial game. There are many areas where he knows, ‘I’ve got to work on it.’”
Morris never felt he was, but he could address deficiencies only once the speed and maturity of the pro game exposed them. There are no delusions of grandeur. He’s as humble and centered as an anointed young athlete can be, and that helped steady him when storms rolled through.
“He got left off the Copa roster and responded by getting better,” Lagerwey said. “He’s been consistently impressive in his mental approach to the game.”
But the hits kept coming. Schmid, a mentor, friend and the face of the club, was fired at the end of July. Morris was in San Jose taking part in the league’s All-Star festivities (he played in an exhibition pitting MLS homegrown players against Mexico’s U-20 team) when Schmid called with the news. Morris is an open book and couldn’t hide his heartache when asked about his former coach.
“He left me a message. Just let me know. I, uh, yeah…,” he said, the pain evident as his voice trailed off.
On Aug. 14, Morris scored the winning goal in Seattle’s 2-1 defeat of RSL. Uruguayan playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro, who arrived as Schmid departed, transformed the Sounders’ attack and opened up possibilities for Morris he hadn’t envisioned. Now playing in his preferred spot on the field, he could take advantage of runs and combinations that weren’t previously available.
Lodeiro’s vision enlarged Morris’s canvas. When Dempsey was sidelined with an irregular heartbeat at the end of August, Morris took it in stride despite his increasing comfort with his celebrated strike partner. Now playing alone up front, the rookie scored four goals in his four starts following the veteran’s shock diagnosis. Another unexpected challenge was countered with another adjustment.
Morris has 12 goals this season, the second-most scored by an MLS rookie, and along with Chris Wondolowski and Chris Pontius he’s the most productive American in the league. Morris believes that it’s the comfort of home, club and community that has provided the strength and serenity needed to navigate so many obstacles. The fact that some of those occur only because he’s playing in Seattle is obvious to everyone but him. The Emerald City is his origin story.
“I didn’t even really think about that, but being from Seattle kind of adds to it too,” he said.
There’s no impatience, no cynicism—no grudges held against the doubters. There’s nothing but love for his hometown–for the fans who demand and the anchors who inquire. Although he doesn’t covet attention, he continues to put himself out there. He’s asked to do multiple one-on-one interviews a week, and he does them. He’s invited media into his home and has made more TV appearances (at least 20) than many players do in a career. He spoke at Seattle’s We Day celebration in April and marched in the city’s Pride Parade in June. Afflicted with type-1 diabetes, Morris has embraced his platform and on his own has raised more than $10,000 for JDRF, which researches and pursues a cure for the disease.
He’ll credit his environment, but plenty of that strength and composure comes from within.
“I think in particular since Dempsey went out, he’s been very poised and very even keeled and he just continued to work,” Lagerwey said. “He’s a smart player and a smart runner and chances are going to fall for him. He’s got a good enough touch that he’s going to finish some chances and score some goals. I’m just really proud of him. Maybe that’s a word you don’t think of from a general manager. He’s a rookie. He’s still a kid. He’s just done so many things well and he’s such a great guy off the field.”
Lagerwey also gave Morris “real credit” for avoiding “the rookie wall.” Morris said he hasn’t had a real break since the summer of 2015 but that his tank is far from empty. He credited his first few national team camps for helping him learn to deal with a longer season. On Sunday, he’ll try to extend it even further. No one anticipated Seattle falling so far behind and being on the threshold of playoff oblivion. No one anticipated Schmid’s departure, Dempsey’s illness or any of the other pitfalls that complicated a rookie season always destined to be unique. There will be pressure at CenturyLink on Sunday. But Morris is a veteran now.
“That’s how it is. I want that responsibility,” he said. “I love it. I love every minute.”