Despite being just 22 years old, the Mercer Island product has delivered on the biggest stage. Don’t expect things to change Saturday.
TORONTO — In the course of a long and enthusiastic endorsement of Jordan Morris, his teammate on the U.S. men’s squad — and opponent Saturday for the MLS championship — Michael Bradley slipped in three important words.
“He’s not afraid.”
That essential trait of Morris’ should be apparent by now. On the grandest stage, Morris turns in his most grandiose performances.
There were the two goals he scored in the NCAA championship game to lead Stanford to the title. There was the wonder goal he scored in his first start for Team USA to give the Americans a 2-0 victory over Mexico in April 2015.
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And, most recently, there was Morris’ flu-laden goal against Colorado, the biggest score in Seattle soccer history, that gave the Sounders the clinching 1-0 victory over the Rapids in the Western Conference championship on Nov. 27. And which put Morris and the Sounders onto the biggest stage of them all, the MLS Cup final against Bradley’s Toronto FC at BMO Field.
Rest assured that Morris won’t be obsessing over the import of the title match. That’s the mind game he plays in order to reduce a potentially stress-inducing showdown into one he can master.
“For me, it’s kind of a case of not getting too into the moment or anything like that,’’ he said Thursday at a news conference before a Sounders workout. “Obviously, it’s not like any other game but kind of trying in your head to consider it like any other game.”
That’s not to say that pressure, and stress, hasn’t gotten the better of Morris at times. He’s human, after all. And just barely 22, despite a résumé — including a flirtation with the Bundesliga — that keeps adding accomplishments and accolades beyond his years.
For instance, when Jordan was held scoreless for his first five games of 2016 — a jolt to many casual fans who expected a cross between Pele and Messi, based on the feverish reception to his homegrown signing — there were whisperings that he wasn’t living up to billing. And questions lingered about the quality of his left foot.
Morris finally broke through with his inaugural goal against Philadelphia on April 16, the first of 14 for the season. His emergence proved vital because of the void left by Obafemi Martins’ departure to the Chinese Super League and Clint Dempsey’s loss to illness. And, as coach Brian Schmetzer noted pointedly on Thursday, Morris had an important goal against Los Angeles and an assist in the playoffs — both with his left foot.
Morris believes his transformation was as much mental as a normal rookie progression.
“I think at first, dealing with that pressure was tough,’’ he said. “I think I let it get to me. Not scoring in those first five games, or whatever it was, a lot of people were quick to write me off already. I think I let that get to me too much.
“But after that, I scored my first goal, I think I got the monkey off my back a little bit, and realized that outside noise doesn’t really mean anything. It’s not going to help me, whether it’s good or bad. For me, it was just kind of a change of attitude and a focus on what I could do to help the team.”
Fellow rookie and close friend Cristian Roldan, one half of what Morris on Thursday cheerfully termed a “bromance,” has seen the subtle attitudinal shift firsthand.
“He doesn’t care what people think about him anymore,’’ Roldan said. “I don’t think he really listens to the negative stuff. Obviously, some positive things are nice to hear for him. I think he’s a guy that has changed a little bit, and I think it’s helped him on the field. I hope it just continues in that way.”
In discussing various positive influences on his growth and development, Morris ranked his relationship with Roldan high on the list.
“Through the tough times, we can talk to each other and go over things,’’ Morris said. “It’s been great to have a guy like that on the team.”
Nicolas Lodeiro, his running mate in the Sounders’ attack, has also had a key role in molding Morris’s game. When he arrived in Seattle at midseason as a Designated Player, having already studied Sounders game film while playing for Boca Juniors, his first words to Morris were: “When I get the ball, you just run.”
Which is exactly what Morris has done, and few in the game are more resolute when they sniff a goal opportunity. Morris describes Lodeiro as the quarterback of the Sounders’ attack, stretching defenses and putting his teammates in the optimal position.
“He makes me a better player, and he makes the players around him much better,’’ Morris said.
Schmetzer believes Nelson Valdez has been an important role model for Morris as well. And Morris had some glowing words to say about Bradley, though their early encounters on the U.S. squad were admittedly terrifying to him.
“Mikey is a great guy, but if I’m going to be completely honest, when I went for my first game, he was pretty intimidating to me,’’ Morris said with a smile.
It didn’t take Morris long to warm up to Bradley, long established as an elite American midfielder.
“He’s been so great to me,’’ Morris said. “What I love about him, he’s just a mentor, he’s a leader, and he’s someone you can go to when you need help with anything.”
For instance, before Morris’ initial start against Mexico, Bradley took Morris aside to brief him on the nuances of his game and where he liked the ball, which raised the newcomer’s comfort level and confidence. Jozy Altidore, another member of the U.S. team playing for Toronto, offered advice as well.
The result is that when these two teams square off Saturday, Bradley and Altidore will have almost fatherly pride in Morris’ development — while trying feverishly, of course, to beat him.
“Jozy and I have gotten to know him very well now the last few years on the national team, and his mentality is different,’’ Bradley said. “He’s a young kid who competes, who wants to learn, who isn’t a big talker.”
And for Morris, what he called a “surreal” rookie season, starring for his hometown team, is set up for a singular finish.
“It’s obviously very exciting, and one I’ve dreamed about since a little kid,’’ he said. “It’s been an awesome year.”
Now we’ll see if Morris can produce another awe-inducing moment in just another game — if that’s what you want to call MLS’s biggest match of the year.