Small steps allow Jordan Morris to make a big mark with USMNT
SAN ANTONIO --
Little moments cropped up here and there to explain why Stanford sophomore Jordan Morris found himself in this barely comprehensible position.
There is no blueprint to follow for a college player thrust into the United States national team starting XI for the first time in a game against Mexico. There is no recent precedent to track for an amateur marking his first start with the game-winning goal in a 2-0 victory. It is novel territory.
Morris tackled the bumpy terrain by focusing on the necessary, fundamental tasks against more seasoned opponents. He charged forward with abandon when provided with open space. He competed for every ball launched in his direction. He facilitated play with his back to goal. He won fouls in good areas to help the team push out from defenses.
The necessary cadence arrived as the first half against Mexico unfolded. He fought through the foibles of the choppy field and the missteps inevitably encountered by a 20-year-old winning his third cap in a game well beyond the scope of anything he had ever encountered before. He settled into the task at hand, sorted through the nerves and then waited for the ultimate test to arrive.
"Before the game, there was definitely some adrenaline that goes into it," Morris said. "I figured it out. It was all good."
The opportunity to turn a good night into a great one arrived four minutes after halftime. Morris impressed the U.S. coaching staff with the menace and precision he exhibited in front of goal during a scrimmage prior to the World Cup last summer. He impressed for the youth national teams and pried his way into consideration for the senior national team because he always found a way to score goals. And now he received an opportunity to translate those qualities on the biggest stage of his nascent career.
U.S. captain Michael Bradley started the play with a clever turn at midfield. He burst through the Mexico half and then played a pass to Gyasi Zardes on the edge of the penalty area. Zardes attempted to play another pass, but a recovering Mexican defender poked it through the line and set the stage for Morris to make his impact on the game.
"It got deflected and it just popped out," Morris said. "I went after it."
The instinctual run placed him in a position he knew all too well. He created this spot time and time again during his childhood in Washington and his career in Palo Alto. He knew what he needed to do. He retained his composure and slotted through the Club Tijuana goalkeeper. He wheeled away in pure delight, engulfed by the magnitude of his accomplishment.
"If you see a boy like Jordan Morris score his first international goal, then you jump for joy because that's what you want to feel for this guy," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said.
Morris continues to entrench himself in the program with each passing day despite the obstacles created by his age and his station. He operates at a lower level and plays a lower tempo than his teammates by choice as he pursues his education, yet he needs to meet those same standards when he returns to the national team. His preparation for this camp illustrates the issue starkly: As his teammates played in MLS, Liga MX and NASL matches over the weekend, he scored the third goal in a spring game against Cal Poly on Saturday.
Klinsmann is a firm believer in identifying talented prospects and thrusting them into his team regardless of their circumstances. It is a divisive practice given the contrast between the callow players he chooses and the veterans he leaves behind. It is a show of faith in the next generation, a sign of the possibilities created by those emerging talents.
Every so often, the circumstances present a chance to throw them into the fire. This match served up the ideal opportunity to do so with Jozy Altidore suspended, Clint Dempsey injured and Chris Wondolowski hindered by a calf injury. Klinsmann looked at his precocious forward and said, well, why not?
"We see his improvement," Klinsmann said. "We see there is a constant positive path in him. Does he need to mature? Does he need to get stronger? These are things that will come with time. We are constantly communicating with Jeremy Gunn at Stanford about his schedule, about the games and about how we can help him because he decided to stay in school. It's his decision. Similar to other players, when certain players are not there, it gives the opportunity for other ones to jump in and show us how they can play against a team like Mexico in front of 65,000. You have to have your nerves together. You have to kind of get it under control."
Morris grappled with those demands like John Brooks and Julian Green did before him. He remembered how Klinsmann pushed those players into the squad for Brazil before their rÃ©sumÃ©s warranted their inclusion. He watched them score at the World Cup and wondered if he could follow the same route.
"It's super exciting when you see players like that go on the field because it gives you hope that you can possibly get on the field one day," Morris said. "And it's worked out."
This night constitutes a meaningful accomplishment at the outset of a longer journey. His future hinges on how he copes with the scrutiny sure to arrive in its wake.
In that sense, this experience offers yet another encouraging indicator. Even on this grand stage, Morris works from sequence to sequence to build toward something bigger. He does not rush it. He just constructs brick by brick until that critical moment finally arrives.