By Ridge Mahoney
Remember last January when Jordan Morris turned down German club Werder Bremen to sign an MLS Homegrown contract to play for his hometown team, Seattle Sounders FC? Oh, the backlash!
Journalists and pundits and fans landed on him and started stomping on his lack of drive, ambition, desire, whatever to stay at home. He'd taken for the safe route. Again.
He’d weathered a similar firestorm several months earlier when he announced he’d return to Stanford rather than go pro. By shunning the pro game for a few more months, he helped his school win its first-ever Division I men’s soccer title. (The Stanford women triumphed in 2011 after losing the two previous title games.)
To many observers – but not many players – soccer success is all that matters and the steepest path is the one to choose. The clever players know the right route is a blend of personal ambition, family considerations, and acute self-awareness. As a member of a well-educated family – his father is a doctor – who actually attended classes at Stanford to work toward his degree, he falls into this category of people who can see beyond the white lines on the field as many others cannot.
Did he stunt his growth as a player by twice delaying his jump into the real world? Probably, at least marginally. Obviously, school and home are more important to him than other players and money isn’t as important. He didn’t sign with MLS to cash in big; his total compensation as a rookie in 2016 is $190,500. However, he’s assured of a starting spot, which wouldn’t be the case at Bremen or most other Bundesliga clubs.
He’d also earn a lot more money overseas and that is a trade-off that boils down, again, to what is more important. There’s no way to monetize the euphoria of celebrating a national title with friends and family and teammates, nor the pride of wearing a jersey etched into his memory since childhood. He had no guarantee of a claiming a crown with Stanford, but the potential reward justified the risk. He weighed the odds and won and is spinning the wheel again in the Northwest rather than northern Germany. (Both teams wear green, a color that suits him, so he has that covered,)
In retrospect, he may have avoided a personal and professional disaster. Since he opted for MLS, Bremen has floundered. It narrowly avoided relegation during the 2015-16 season and so far in the current campaign has lost all four of its Bundesliga games, fell to Sportfreunde Lotte of the third division in the German Cup, and fired head coach Victor Skripnik. The club is deflecting rumors that it will hire Dutch manager Louis van Gaal as a replacement. Soccer as soap opera is great entertainment but it's not the ideal testing ground for a talented but raw, soft-spoken, 21-year-old,
Like it nor not, Jordan Morris is doing a lot of growing up in MLS as a player and a person and a professional. He’s not in the Bundesliga, but his team is threatened by the first non-playoff season in its history and while that’s not relegation, it’s a failure and embarrassment the team is desperate to avoid. Unfairly, he’s getting a lot of the blame as his every miss is magnified when the team doesn’t get a result.
His first year in MLS hasn’t been a picnic. He’s scored 10 goals, about one-half of the total his harshest critics believe he should have tallied. Head coach Sigi Schmid, who he’d known since Morris’ days in the Sounders youth system, has been fired. Front-line partner, Clint Dempsey, the key attacker for the U.S. national team, is sidelined with a heart condition that could end his career. He’s adjusting to a new teammate, Uruguayan Nicolas Lodeiro, who brings a much different set of skills and tools to the squad with former assistant coach Brian Schmetzer now in charge.
“It’s a different life, for sure, than college,” he said after a 1-1 tie in San Jose two weeks ago. “I like Sigi a lot and wish him all the best. It’s weird, that early in your first season to have a coaching change, but Schmetzer’s come in and done a great job and people have responded well to him. You’ve got to move on and it’s something you’ve got to deal with.”
Sure, Bremen would be a tougher test, but it also could have been a quagmire of failure and regression. A team desperate for points and goals has little patience for a newbie who certainly would have struggled at first in the fast, hard, voracious Bundesliga. Other American forwards have learned that harsh lesson.
Three years ago, Jozy Altidore went to Sunderland buoyed by a 31-goal season (all competitions) in the Netherlands with AZ Alkmaar, and when he and the team floundered it couldn’t get rid of him soon enough. He’d started off in Spain with Villarreal, which had paid a transfer fee of $10 million, but was loaned out three times and finally sold on to AZ. Net production for Villarreal and the three loanees: two goals in 40 games.
There’s little wiggle room, scant ambiguity, for goalscorers. Goals, assists, wins. Like TV ratings, the stats may lie but they are widely believed.
If Morris had been demoted to the Bremen II reserve team, he’d be scuffling in the third division against the likes of Sportfreunde Lotte, which is probably below the standard of German soccer than even Jurgen Klinsmann would approve of.
Morris is going through the grind and learning the ropes of getting points in pressure situations that may not compare to Europe yet are intense enough. He scored one of the biggest goals of his young career last week against Vancouver by knifing in front of Whitecaps’ defender Jordan Smith to meet a Lodeiro cross with a waist-high header. It was the only goal of a precious 1-0 victory in front of 47,111 roaring fans that moved Seattle closer to the playoff tier.
“Jordan just has to keep finding his way,” said Schmetzer after the Whitecaps’ game. “He’s such a hard-working kid that things will go right for him. He has so many good starting points with his size, his speed, his athleticism. He’s going to be successful.”
There is no one path to soccer success, so I get pretty annoyed with people who criticize young players' career decisions. There are always trade-offs, the most obvious being which is better for the development of a career, being part of a better team (but not getting much playing time) or getting playing time at a lower level? And since playing time at the professional level is never guaranteed, many times players don't even have the information to make an informed decision on that basis. My hope is that players know themselves well enough to make the right decision for them, and good luck to 'em.
Even the best kids, like Jordan Morris, will likely never make mega-bucks in Soccer to set them up for life. There will be life, and a job, after soccer for almost everyone, A class act like Jordan Morris armed with a Stanford degree will go on to do many interesting things in his life, after soccer. Other kids should heed his example. Just finishing High School and doing a couple good years at a JC with a class soccer program will make them more successful, and happier, over the course of a lifetime. And MLS is crazy if the do not sell that path to all the young kids they recruit into the home-grown programs. If you don't believe me, ask a player who left school to sign young and is now driving a beer truck, and playing in a Pub league.
LOL...college soccer is a wasteland and players can always go back to college after their careers are over, like millions of Americans do. You only have so many years to play soccer and wasting four of them playing for free at a super low level like college soccer is a complete waste for an elite player.
Good piece, Ridge. Keep them coming.
JM seems to be progressing well enough. From the fan's perspective, the downside is obvious. By attending college & MLS, he's reduced his productive career from 12+ years to 8+ (since everything after 30 is considered a bonus). He probably won't be fully, physically mature until 24 and at the height of his skills at 26. This is 2-4 years later than equivalent pros in Europe. We're so desperate for world class players there is a palpable anxiety among supporters about not achieving the critical mass required to get to a World Cup semi--to improve beyond that 2002 result. I think as more and more US players go to European leagues, fans won't feel the need to pressure our young players to go down paths they might not otherwise choose. It's all about maturing as a soccer-loving country. We're not the only ones--Australia and Canada will experience similar issues along the way, too.
We and he will never know what level of potential he could have achieved. JM made his decision...so far he's blossoming.
Had two kids play college soccer, one got drafted by MLS, both have college degrees. The drafted player was shocked to find that when he went to blackboard to calculate the salary loss a particular player was going to incur more than half the room could not understand the simple calculation he used. All the college educated figured it out right away. When the VAST MAJORITY of players finish their careers in US soccer they will have no money to live on. Most gifted players can make progress in college and make a decision about going MLS or to Europe; the VAST MAJORITY need to make school a priority. Of the 80 or so players drafted to the MLS my sons year probably 65 are not playing, 8 made it to MLS, 8 are USL. Not great odds.