January is a typical month for optimism. And new beginnings filled Jordan Morris last winter.
The Sounders FC star agreed to a deal loaning his playing rights to Swansea City A.F.C., a second-tier soccer team tucked in a quaint namesake town in Wales. Morris and his bride, Eliza, who were married just weeks before the signing, were eager to embark for this new world.
With a pop in February, everything changed. Morris suffered a torn ACL in his left knee during his fifth appearance with Swansea — a day before the couple’s car arrived from Seattle.
Suddenly, Eliza was leading the process of repacking the couple’s apartment to return to Seattle and a familiar reality. For the second time in the past four years, Jordan would spend the bulk of the soccer calendar rehabilitating an ACL injury.
The Mercer Island native tore his right ACL while playing for the Sounders in a CONCACAF Champions League match in February 2018. Morris, a high-scoring winger, missed the MLS season and all possible appearances for the U.S. men’s national team.
“The toughest part of my first injury was not knowing how I would return as a player, because I had never been through an ACL before and I didn’t know how I would come out on the other side,” said Morris, who returned in 2019 to win the MLS Comeback Player of the Year award. He totaled 13 goals and eight assists across all competitions, helping the Sounders win a second MLS Cup.
Now, seven months after suffering his second ACL injury, the only thing Morris knows about his timeline to return is that he is six months closer. Belief that overcoming every exhausting workout, throbbing knee pain and the mind-numbing monotony of rehab will improve his performance on the field keeps Morris patient in building toward that match day when he finally slips on a Rave Green jersey again.
“I feel like I came back from my first ACL injury a better player than I was before,” Morris continued. “Knowing that I’m going to do that this time as well is mentally helping me a lot. The challenging part of going through an injury like this before is that you know exactly the grind that you’re in for. So when I first heard the news I just couldn’t really believe it, because I know how challenging it was to go through this injury before, and to have to do it again was devastating.”
Not a gambling man
Along with lamps, clothes and pictures, Morris boxed up soccer — mentally distancing himself from the game. He figured that would be the best way to make it through rehabilitating his knee.
Six months removed from his March 10 surgery, Morris still hasn’t unpacked that figurative soccer box. The flaps are open enough to shed light on what a player with Morris’ pace and experience could do in the Sounders’ new formation that features three center backs and two forwards up top.
“Just wait until Jordan Morris comes back, and then let’s see teams try to press high against us and leave Jordan and Raul (Ruidiaz) and Cristian (Roldan) up front,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said after training Friday. “Let’s see that.”
Other hints of Morris’ progress are a video clip of him doing field work in August that received more than 43,000 views on Twitter, his first media interviews since January and his name being on the Sounders’ 25-player roster for the Leagues Cup quarterfinal matchup against Tigres UANL in August.
Morris began partial training with the team this month. This week Morris is expected to make his first trip with the Sounders since surgery, traveling to Las Vegas to support teammates in the Leagues Cup final Wednesday against Club Leon at Allegiant Stadium.
Morris, who made clear he’s not a gambling man, said don’t bet on him playing. Schmetzer emphasized Friday that Morris is on a medical timeline and though close, he is not in the final stage of recovery.
The club is taking all signed first-team players to Las Vegas as the Sounders aim to win the Leagues Cup and bring home their first trophy of the calendar year. Roldan helped the USMNT win the Gold Cup in August at the new facility located off the Vegas strip.
“I’ve watched way too much soccer from the sideline this year,” Morris said. “It’s one of the most difficult parts of going through the long-term injury, watching your team play. Watching games you feel you should be playing in, whether it’s with the Sounders or with the national team as well. Missing being out there more than anything. I love playing soccer, and to have that get taken away from me for these two (of the past four) years is frustrating.
“It can be mentally really challenging. The physical part of coming back from an ACL is difficult, but I think the mental part is what’s the most challenging.”
That’s when the soccer box slams shut. Morris, who turns 27 in October, sees a therapist biweekly. The sessions have taught him that compartmentalizing soccer will help achieve his goal of returning a better player than when he was named to MLS’ 2020 Best XI team.
Even contemplating whether he’ll play overseas again or his USMNT future, with the 2022 men’s FIFA World Cup tournament in Qatar looming, is too distracting for Morris. He opted to sign with Swansea because the club was in range to be promoted to the top-flight English Premier League — a dream of his.
Morris made one start for the Swans and logged 131 minutes in five Swansea matches before suffering the injury.
“I was loving it,” Morris said of the brief experience. “I was just getting up to speed and felt like I was doing really well and about to really get going with them. That made it all the more difficult for sure.
“But taking it day by day is really important, and knowing that every day I’m making progress and getting closer. All of that other stuff will come. The main focus for me is just getting my knee right. However long that takes I’m going to take, because I know the most important thing is being 100%.”
The Sounders have been able to maintain success without key players. Goalkeeper Stefan Frei (sprained knee/blood clots), midfielder Nico Lodeiro (knee), midfielder Jordy Delem (knee) and defender Nouhou (adductor) have all missed significant time rehabbing injuries.
And yet, Seattle (13-5-6) is one point behind Sporting Kansas City for the Western Conference lead.
Morris pinpoints the state of his rehab by looking at his reflection in a mirror. His right leg bears a faded scar just above the kneecap where the incision was made for that ACL surgery. The left leg, in photos, is visibly smaller and the scar still purplish as it heals.
Once a gifted scorer with both feet, Morris said he’s at the club’s facility at Starfire Sports in Tukwila for about six hours, six days a week working on his knee and fitness. His return to on-field work includes getting his touches and explosiveness back.
“Being injured is pretty isolating; you don’t really feel part of the team,” Morris said. “Recently I’ve done more, and guys are excited (for me). We have an awesome locker room, so I’m excited to be out there with those guys.”
But when he returns home to his wife and sheepadoodle puppy, Maisie, Morris tries to forget about soccer.
Aside from a few sponsored ads and congratulatory posts, Morris also said he’s stayed off social media to stay focused. In addition to being a new husband, Morris used part of this year to work on graduating from Stanford through online classes.
The university returned to in-person learning this fall, and Morris says he’s about 15 credits shy of earning his degree in science technology and society.
Morris, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a child, has also drawn inspiration and encouragement working more with his foundation. For the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he hosted his first soccer camp in August for more than 100 kids who also suffer from the disease.
The foundation typically hosts kids at Sounders games, too. But for now that’s part of the unopened soccer box.
“It’s not going to help my recovery to wish I was somewhere else,” Morris said. “One of the big things this time around is every time I start thinking about stuff outside of my control, I go back to my only goal — my only job right now is to get better and get back on the field. But it’s a grind.”