By Ridge Mahoney
He didn’t say it in so many words, but recent comments by U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann regarding rookie forward Jordan Morris can be translated thusly:
A middling start to his pro career in Seattle has made Morris, who just a few months ago helped Stanford win the NCAA Division I soccer championship, a victim of his own success. But that can happen when you score against Mexico in first U.S. start, as Morris did a year ago: every road from the summit leads downhill, in the eyes of some observers, if you don’t pick right up where you left off.
His replacement in that game, Revs striker Juan Agudelo, scored his first U.S. goal in more than four years to round out a 2-0 victory that reminds us a friendly -- even one against an archrival -- isn’t really all that big a deal.
But the Morris story certainly is a big deal and it took an important turn in January when as expected he rebuffed interest from foreign teams to sign with Seattle as Homegrown player. A brief trial with Werder Bremen, arranged by U.S. U-23 head coach and former Bremen player Andi Herzog, triggered a fair amount of angst and refueled the heated debate of MLS vs. Foreign League TBA. A ridiculous amount of hype greeted news he’d assisted on a goal for Bremen in a training game during its winter camp in Turkey.
In the end, his choice confirmed the significance of several years in the Sounders development program and the fact his father is the team doctor.
Lost in the glow of a ballyhooed start to his national team career and the goal against Mexico is the stark fact that not until he lined up for the Sounders had he played in a top-level competitive match. Only now is he going up against professionals of all ages and sizes.
“Now for Jordan it's a game-by-game learning curve to really understand what the professional game demands,” said Klinsmann in a Facebook Q&A Tuesday. “It's a lot more physical, it's a lot faster compared to what he was used to coming from the college system.”
He wasn’t named to the roster for the 2015 Gold Cup as he needed surgery for a stress fracture in his leg. In October, he played for the U.S. U-23s in the Olympic qualifying tournament rather than the Concacaf Cup showdown against Mexico the Americans lost, 3-2. Last month he played both U-23 playoff games against Colombia and not the World Cup qualifiers with Guatemala.
Elimination from the Olympic Games presents Klinsmann with the problem of which U-23 players to move into the senior setup faster than others. Defenders John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin have already established themselves in the senior pool; in the short term, does Morris or other young players such as Matt Miazga get fast-tracked for the Copa America Centenario, which is just two months away?
“I think it’s really important, for example in a case like Jordan Morris, that we are patient,” said Klinsmann. “That we understand that there is a player jumping from the college system into the pro system and obviously tremendously talented, that’s why he is with the national team program, but to give him time.”
In many ways, he’s still a college player coming to grips with the pro game and in Seattle, stung by the departure of striker Obafemi Martins to the Chinese league, there’s a big hole to fill. Martins rang up 40 goals and 23 assists in 72 games and by timing and circumstance, Morris is in the spotlight of fan and media scrutiny.
Teammates are more realistic. He’s very young and very raw.
“You can’t ask for anything more from a young guy who’s got a lot of pressure on his shoulders, coming in and putting his head down and work, and that’s what you get from Jordan,” said Sounders captain Brad Evans in an ESPN interview. “You see it on the national team, you saw it in college. Now the progression is: if he gets only one chance in a game, can he finish that chance? That can be the difference in the start to our season. He gets one chance against Kansas City to put it away and we go up 1-0, it changes the game. So far, very happy with his quality, very happy with his mindset. He’ll only continue to get better and better.”
In four games (three starts), Morris has played 263 minutes and taken three shots. Whoscored.com credits him with a passing percentage of 80.6 and 15.5 passes per game. His journey in some ways seemed to crescendo a year ago when in fact it is just getting started.
"Jordan is a personality that learns very quickly, so obviously [we] will watch him now and see how he gets his feet wet in MLS and how he's coming through,” said Klinsmann. “We are very confident his learning curve will [progress] really fast and we definitely see him continuing to be a part of the senior national team.”