I’m suspicious. Playing the College Division I final on a gloomy damp Sunday afternoon in Kansas City sounds like an NCAA conspiracy -- a continued conspiracy, I might say -- to belittle the sport.
Logically, you can add a virtually empty stadium to the off-puts listed above. And college soccer itself managed to make a bad situation worse ... I mean, both semifinals finishing 0-0, decided on penalty kicks? Not a goal to be seen.
Which raised the possibility that Clemson and Stanford would give us another 0-0 shootout, and the new champion would repeat the farcical doings of Sigi Schmid’s UCLA back in 1990, when they won the title without scoring a goal in either the semi or the final.
We were spared that embarrassment -- and the man doing the savior act was the guy who has been repeatedly hailed as the brightest star in the American soccer firmament, Jordan Morris. The final wasn’t even two minutes old when Morris latched on to an inviting assist, a short accurate pass from Eric Verso in the penalty area, and with massive poise and power slammed the ball into the Clemson goal.
Almost everything Morris did in this game oozed menace and trouble for Clemson. It also glittered with soccer skill. Whatever praise Morris has been getting, it’s probably not enough. How often does such a natural turn up in American soccer -- or in anyone’s soccer, for that matter? And a skillful forward at that? Yikes, a goalscoring forward?
When they’re super-talented, as Morris obviously is, but young as well, you worry, worry about what the publicity (never mind the marketing) is going to do to them. The almost tragic career of Freddy Adu haunts the theme. Praise in the media -- articles like this one -- always looks likely to do as much harm as good.
But I’m not about to apologize for my praise. Because Morris showed something else. Something I have learned to recognize, I believe, during some 50 years of watching and passing judgment on young players. What he showed was almost total calmness. What was once called unflappability.
Nothing that happened during the final seemed to change Morris’ ability to concentrate on the game, on his goalscoring task ... though task is not the right word, too functional. I think mission conveys things better. Where task makes one think of merely of work-rate, mission implies devotion, a much deeper, more intriguing quality.
Morris was fouled, of course he was -- not excessively, this was not a dirty game -- but it’s difficult to remember the occasions because the fouls seemed to have no effect on Morris. They were, so to speak, taken in stride. Nothing to notice. Nor was there any frantic celebration after his goals, no shirt peeled off and wildly waved -- just the usual mob of players mobbing an almost uncomfortable-looking Morris.
I suppose that makes Morris sound like a cold customer. Maybe -- there was certainly a suggestion of that. But remaining cool under pressure is an essential for a goalscorer, a man whose key moments come in the cauldron of the opponents’ penalty area.
I’d like to have seen more of Morris -- but Stanford’s response to getting an early goal was to play hermetic defense with an occasional breakaway. The service up to Morris was, frankly, pretty pathetic. But no complaints from Morris, no signs of frustration.
Things changed in the second half -- just five minutes in, Morris, at last, got an excellent on-the-ground pass, and, with balletic movement and superb all control completely bamboozled two Clemson defenders, before firing home.
Which put Morris on a hat trick. He could have had it -- I’m not high on stats, but when was the last hat trick in a college Division I final?. So something rare, in what, we’re told may well have been his farewell to college soccer.
In fact, Morris should have had his hat trick. He was fouled and Stanford got a penalty kick -- one that Morris should have taken. Instead, it was taken by Brandon Vincent, who scored with authority. As I imagine Morris would have done. Maybe Morris doesn’t like taking PKs -- but this one he should have taken.
Yes, I do believe Morris is the real deal, a genuine, naturally gifted goalscorer, with a calm personality to go with his skills. It’s a long time since I saw a college player -- an American -- with such promise.
Take Morris out of this college final, and you have a standard college game. An overly defensive Stanford, Clemson lacking the attacking edge, and the subtlety, to break through. Sounds like another 0-0 shootout.
Maybe not. Late in the game, as Clemson tired, or became dispirited, Stanford shed their defensive chains and we got a lovely run and a fine goal from Eric Verso.
The only negative -- as distinct from non-positive -- note came near the end of the first half. It came from referee Chris Penso -- who should have called a penalty for Clemson. Saul Chinchilla chased a pass in the Stanford penalty area and beat Stanford goalkeeper Andrew Epstein to the ball. Epstein then simply wiped him out. And that’s not even a foul according to Penso. Extraordinary.
So -- even had there been an NCAA conspiracy to make soccer look bad, it didn’t stand a chance against the super-positive aspect of this game, the Young Master Morris, who turned a gloomy Sunday afternoon into a shining occasion ... and yeah, I guess you could say I liked what I saw.