Rookie starting to fill void left by Martins’ departure.
Clint Dempsey fixed fellow Sounders forward Jordan Morris with a big-eyed stare, expression deadpan.
The veteran and the rookie haven’t always seen eye-to-eye this season, wires crossed and frustrated gestures. But last Sunday in Orlando, there was little question as to the message Dempsey was trying to convey.
Dempsey had just completed his first MLS hat trick since April of 2014. Yet instead of breaking off toward the corner flag to celebrate by himself, he strode purposefully toward Morris, pulling him into an embrace and even cracking a rare smile for the cameras.
“He’s becoming a complete player, not only somebody that can score goals but can get assists,” Dempsey said this week. “You look at last game, he could have had five assists. He’s coming along great, and the future is just looking brighter and brighter for him.”
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It hasn’t always been glowing plaudits and rainbows this season at the Sounders’ Starfire Sports Complex – not as the losses piled up and not as their two U.S. men’s national team forwards struggled to mesh.
The complications started when Obafemi Martins left for the Chinese Super League just weeks before the season. As much as the Sounders talked a big game about not heaping too much pressure on Morris’ shoulders, once Martins left, a greater share of the attacking burden was inevitable.
Dempsey has described Martins as one of his favorite teammates he’s ever lined up next to, and with justification. They were kindred spirits whose impulsive styles of play complemented each other almost immediately.
“Certain relationships, like with me and Oba, from the get I felt like we were on the same page,” Dempsey said. “With me and Jordan, I feel like we’re getting there.”
Asked to compare and contrast Martins and Morris, interim Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer gave what he described as a “bland answer” that can also be thought of as the central theme of this Sounders season – for better and for worse.
“Jordan is not Oba, and Oba is not Jordan,” Schmetzer said.
“(Morris) might stretch the field, opening up those little areas for Clint – on the first goal, especially, in Orlando, you saw Jordy sprinting towards the near post. … Oba liked to be a little bit closer to Clint. They liked to pass the ball to each other. It’s just the difference in the two personalities that makes it exciting and different.”
Ante Razov, the Sounders assistant who works most closely with the forwards, said that early on, Morris was almost too respectful of his more-accomplished, older teammate. On the field, the rookie out of Stanford was so cognizant of where Dempsey was at all times that it was detrimental to his own attacking threat.
“Now, there’s a comfort and balance where they’re both looking to combine,” Razov said. “Clint’s a combiner. I don’t think that was Jordy’s strength.”
Off the field, in the locker room in team meetings, Morris was occasionally hesitant to speak up, wary of ruffling feathers. That’s slowly changing. He’s developing an edge.
If their contrasting personalities have occasionally caused a disconnect during game action, a case can be made that it will be beneficial for Morris, especially, in the long run.
“You see that Clint’s got tenacity,” Razov said. “He’s intense on the field. It’s something a young player can learn just by watching.
“In the big world of soccer, you see that most players out there have very, very hard intensity. I think Jordan has recognized that. He’s not quite there, but he’s starting to realize that there’s a real hard edge you have to have if you want to be a striker here. Because you’re going to be on the end of a lot of physical abuse, as well as psychological if you’re not scoring.
“He’s hard on himself. We’ve tried to work on his reactions. If the play doesn’t come off, if he loses the ball, don’t put your head down. We know you’re upset. You don’t have to apologize to anyone and show the world. Just get on with it.”
It’s important to note that Dempsey and Morris have started just 14 league matches together. Nine of them came before Copa America Centenario – for which Dempsey was chosen and Morris was a surprising omission – and they’ve had just five games since to regain their rhythm.
Though both have become significant figures within the U.S. national-team pool, Dempsey the USMNT’s most relied-upon veteran and Morris one of its brightest young prospects, their international call-ups have rarely overlapped.
Fourteen games, in the grand scheme of things, is a drop in the bucket. Fourteen games, and if Morris’ pair of on-a-platter assists against Orlando City are any indication, that relationship is blossoming.
“I think you see now the interaction on the field,” Razov said. “There are hand gestures. Sometimes there’s just a look. I don’t think they’re at that point yet where they can understand each other with just a look, because that comes with a couple of years. I think Clint and Oba had that. I’ve had that with partnerships in the past. That doesn’t come right way.
“It’s been a growing relationship. … It’s up to the younger one to adapt to the older one. And we’ve seen bits and pieces throughout the season.”