Morris is treating the burden of expectation less like a cursed family amulet passed down among generations of players and more like the latest chapter of a charmed few years.
Jordan Morris ascended the ladder tentatively, clammy hands gripping tightly onto the final few rungs.
His mother, Leslie, and older brothers, Christopher and Julian, already had completed their journey onto the roof of the Space Needle, and they happily snapped pictures of the view. Soon they would provide a protective semi-circle from the local media attending the late-January photo shoot.
“I don’t like heights,” the next Great American Soccer Hope murmured, keeping one hand on the inner wall of the spire for support.
Morris distracted himself by checking social-media updates on his mom’s phone — the Mercer Island native was so bombarded by text messages and notifications once his Sounders homecoming was official that they had drained his phone’s battery.
Earlier that day, general manager Garth Lagerwey attempted to quell hysteria with calls for patience and restraint that felt at odds with the raised-dais nature of Morris’ introductory news conference.
The public-relations staff eventually pried Morris from the comfort of the inner wall. He took cautious steps toward the railing. Cameras clicking, he raised a Sounders scarf above his head and put on a brave face.
Shortly afterward, the Sounders posted a tweet that included the Morris photo next to a nearly identical shot of Lionel Messi, the world’s greatest soccer player, and the following text:
“Just saying … #TBT”
The hype machine for the highest-profile rookie signing in Sounders history and the newest, brightest hope for the future of U.S. soccer already was spinning.
But was Morris’ decision to play in MLS instead of in Europe the right move for him and, in the bigger picture, the national team?
Debating the merits of MLS vs. testing oneself in Europe, where the competition level is higher, is as old as the league’s two-decade existence.
Morris’ training camp with Werder Bremen in Germany and eventual decision to sign with the Sounders touched a nerve.
To some, starting a career in MLS instead of jumping into the Bundesliga deep end represented a cop-out.
Landon Donovan retired following the 2014 MLS season, capping his Los Angeles Galaxy career with a sixth league championship. His legacy hovers over the American soccer landscape he did so much to cultivate.
For all his national-team success — the breakout performance at the 2002 World Cup and his group-stage-winning goal against Algeria in 2010 — Donovan’s club accomplishments are tempered by a, “Yeah, but.”
Yeah, Donovan won six MLS Cups, but imagine what he could have accomplished if he had stuck it out in Europe. Yeah, his national-team career was great, but if he hadn’t flamed out at Bayer Leverkusen, maybe he would have taken the U.S. further.
Donovan wishes he had handled a few things differently.
In a recent phone interview Donovan said he was “very naïve, very egotistical.
“I wish somebody would have stressed patience and (said), ‘Just stay there, keep working through it,’ ” he said. “ … There’s no question that when I made the decision to come back to the States, it was the easy decision.”
Another part of Donovan’s legacy involves the humanization of star athletes.
Donovan, however you might view his faults and failings, was uncommonly transparent. He spoke openly about his mental well-being and unapologetically about the toll of the grind. One in a long line of anointed U.S. soccer saviors and one of the few who lived up the billing, Donovan shouldered that burden.
He temporarily stepped away from the game at the height of his powers to find himself in Cambodia, for goodness sake. If it cost himself a spot on the 2014 U.S. World Cup roster, it isn’t among his regrets.
Donovan popularized the notion that a soccer player’s personal life can play a role in his on-field development.
“Jordan has to live his life,” said Donovan, who sent Morris a post-decision e-mail expressing admiration for how he had handled the hoopla. “Everybody can have their opinions on what he should do and what he should be, he’s the one who’s living his life day to day. I want Jordan to succeed. … I want him to be a superstar and help us win a World Cup just like everybody else. But more than that, I want Jordan to be happy and have a good life.
“If people can take both into account, it’s OK to be excited and want the next superstar.”
After the Sounders tweeted the side-by-side photos of Morris and Messi, Donovan tweeted:
“He may have a better chance at a successful career if you don’t compare him to Messi the day he signs #JustSaying”
Adu, Agudelo, Altidore, an alphabetic recitation of American prodigies tagged as the next big thing in soccer.
A Sports Illustrated headline in 2003: “Who’s next? Freddy Adu at 13, America’s soccer prodigy has the world at his feet.”
Wrote ESPN in 2011: “Juan Agudelo could be the Next Big Thing in U.S. Soccer.”
And going back further, there were Jamar Beasley, Donovan, Eddie Gaven and John O’Brien.
Some withstood the pressure, and some were pulverized by it.
Agudelo and Jozy Altidore tried to make it in England and struggled for playing time and goals. Rising star Charlie Davies got into a late-night car accident just as his national-team career appeared set to take off. Beasley battled alcohol issues and the ascendancy of his younger brother, DaMarcus. Jamar eventually bounced between more than 20 professional clubs, mostly in the indoor soccer league.
Adu has been turned into a cautionary tale at age 26, his name referenced at Morris’ introduction.
I want him to be a superstar and help us win a World Cup just like everybody else. But more than that, I want Jordan to be happy and have a good life.” - Landon Donovan, former MLS star
“I was present in Washington, D.C., when they announced Freddy Adu,” Lagerwey said. “And I refuse to make Jordan a pawn or a symbol.”
Adu’s experience at D.C. United is viewed as a template for what the Sounders will try to avoid with Morris. Adu headlined ad campaigns and dated a pop star. He was ground beneath the gears of the machine before getting spit out the other side 11 clubs later with the minor-league Tampa Bay Rowdies — far too much, far too soon.
The 21-year-old Morris, at least, has credentials and has survived the rigors of puberty.
“In the media side, we’re not going to put Jordan out there front and center as the centerpiece of our team,” Lagerwey said. “We’re not going to go out there saying, ‘Hey, it’s Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris.’ We have guys that are established and successful. This is a team that has made the playoffs every year in its existence. Jordan is just a new piece to the puzzle. We’ve acted publicly that way, and we’ve acted internally that way.”
The departure of Obafemi Martins to the Chinese Super League means Morris will step into a starting role from Day 1.
Lagerwey refuses to provide a benchmark for Morris’ rookie season.
“Only that Jordan continues to mature and get better,” Lagerwey said when asked how he’ll evaluate first-year success. “I don’t know that there’s a metric you want to stick out there and say, ‘You have to hit this.’ Because I think he’s still evolving as a player and figuring out who he is.”
Morris stopped checking his social-media mentions midway through the NCAA tournament run that would end in Stanford’s first men’s soccer national championship. It was unsettling, the process of being the next big thing turned into a talking point.
“You see the overrated stuff,” Morris said. “It’s fair — people have their opinions, and that’s fair enough. But that’s superfluous noise. It doesn’t really matter to your ability to keep getting better.”
So he shut it out. Morris celebrated the national title with his teammates and was honored as the Hermann Trophy winner in St. Louis as the best player in Division I. He spent that camp with Bremen, trying to envision himself wearing a different shade of light green.
If these past few months underscored anything, it was the value of home. That is the refuge where he can take a breath. Morris cherished chicken-dinner nights and spending time with the three family dogs. His family is a protective bubble that was showcased in its lining on the Space Needle roof.
U.S. soccer’s next big thing is living at home for the foreseeable future, and he shakes his head that any young professional might miss the appeal.
“I’m doing this for me and for my family, not for the outside world,” Morris said. “This is my journey. I have to focus on what I can control.
“What I’ve realized is that you can be dehumanized a little bit. It’s fair. People want success. But you have to look at players as humans, too. There’s a life outside of soccer that’s important. For me, coming back around my family and around this was really important to me. … If you’re on the outside looking in, it’s hard to see that sometimes.”
If one were to construct a word map of adjectives most used to describe Morris, “level-headed” would be biggest and boldest.
He’s open about where his game needs to improve — his finishing and his ability to hold the ball for teammates — and treats a potential World Cup trip with wide-eyed “I sure hope so” instead of taking it as a given.
Maybe it’s temperament, and maybe it’s the late-blooming nature of his rise. Morris was just another Mercer Island standout until a high-school growth spurt. He was just another college dreamer until the U.S. national team scrimmaged Stanford before the 2014 World Cup and the Cardinal broke on a counter that the young forward finished with aplomb.
Whatever the reason, Morris is treating the burden of expectation less like a cursed family amulet passed down among generations of national-team players and more like the latest chapter of a charmed few years.
“It’s obviously exciting hearing people talk about you like that,” Morris said. “It’s super nice and flattering. But I know I have so much I need to continue to work on and grow with to get to that level. It may never happen. But I know I’m going to work hard every day to try and get better, just try to keep pushing and try to get to a level that I’m proud of.
“Hopefully I make other people proud of it, too.”