Mercer Island’s Jordan Morris picked the Sounders and MLS over playing in Europe, a decision that didn’t seem smart a few years ago.
There’s absolutely no question that the signing of Jordan Morris, unveiled to great fanfare Thursday, is a coup for the Sounders, and a boon for Major League Soccer.
Whether or not this is the best move for Morris’ soccer future is a more legitimate question, and ultimately an imponderable one — despite a cascade of opinion on the matter. The eternal search for the Next Big Thing in American soccer has rarely had a fairy tale ending (see Adu, Freddy), so there’s no prototype for Morris to follow.
“There’s not empirical data that says if a player goes to X league, there’s a Y outcome that’s better than if he went to a different league,’’ Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer said. “It’s a completely individual thing.’’
With that in mind, and weighing an offer from Werder Bremen of the German Bundesliga, Morris chose the best path to fulfillment: Follow his heart. And his heart took him back to his hometown team, which will try very hard not to force him to be America’s latest homegrown savior.
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Adu is the cautionary tale, deemed America’s Pele as a pre-teen and signed by D.C. United at age 14 as the top draft pick in MLS, only to have his career fizzle far short of expectations.
Morris, 21, arrives with his own lofty expectations, having already won an NCAA title with Stanford and the Hermann Trophy as the top collegiate player. He’s also had flashes of success with the U.S. national men’s team. Many are looking at Morris to be the next American superstar before he has even played his first professional match.
The Sounders are going to try very hard to keep Morris grounded, though his humble temperament indicates that won’t be difficult. The first matter on his Seattle agenda will be earning playing time on a front line that already includes established players like Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins and Nelson Valdez.
“We feel like this is a pretty big club with a big fan base and big players,’’ Hanauer said. “We love Jordan, but we have much bigger players today than Jordan. He has to earn his way onto the field.”
Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said, “I was present in Washington, D.C., when they announced Freddy Adu, and I refuse to make Jordan a symbol or a pawn in anything.’’
Yet that didn’t stop the Sounders from posting a picture Wednesday on Twitter of Morris juxtaposed with an earlier one of Lionel Messi, each striking a similar pose atop the Space Needle.
And it didn’t stop coach Sigi Schmid, while urging restraint in one breath, from lavishing some pretty hefty praise in another.
“Landon Donovan is one of the best players U.S. soccer ever produced and he was a player that also decided for his development it was best to stay home and do that here,’’ Schmid said. “I think Jordan can eventually evolve himself into that same class.”
Schmid recalls advising a player in 2005 who was deciding between playing in Europe or the MLS, and found the advantages stacked strongly in favor of going overseas. Now that the gap in quality of play has narrowed, as well as the salary structure, it’s not nearly so clear-cut.
“Our league has developed to the point where a lot of those things have become erased,’’ he said. “A lot of those things are very close to equal, and I think the development of players in our country continues to grow.”
Schmid points, again, to Donovan, whose experience playing in Germany early in his career wasn’t a happy one, largely because of difficulty adjusting to a new culture. His career didn’t take off until he was loaned to the San Jose Earthquakes and then traded to the Los Angeles Galaxy.
“If you put yourself into an uncomfortable situation, your growth stagnates,’’ Schmid said.
It’s not unreasonable to think that a contented Morris, a self-described “homebody,” will thrive more with the Sounders than he would have with Werder Bremen. At some point down the road, Morris can still tackle Europe, as former Sounder DeAndre Yedlin is doing with Sunderland — with only moderate success — in the English Premier League.
Of course, one wonders how U.S. national coach Jurgen Klinsmann feels about Morris’ decision. Klinsmann has been known to push his Americans toward Europe, believing that the stronger competition will produce better players.
“My personal opinion is that Jurgen knows no better than any of us what’s best for the development of a player,’’ Hanauer said.
Morris, who leaves Friday for training with the U.S. national team in Los Angeles, insists that Klinsmann has been supportive throughout the process.
“He did help me set up the trial over there (in Germany) and supported me going over there and wanted me to try it, which is very fair,’’ Morris said. “I agreed with him. I wanted to try it, too.
“But in terms of my final decision, he was very supportive of what I wanted to do, which I really appreciated. He’s given me opportunities I never thought I’d get in my whole career.”
Morris’ pro career now starts in Seattle. Perhaps the best justification for his decision of MLS over Bundesliga was made by Hanauer.
“One thing I can guarantee is there is no soccer organization in the world that cares more about the development of Jordan Morris as a young man, and as a soccer player, than the Sounders,’’ he said.