Jordan Morris leaned on midfielder Cristian Roldan, the former Huskies star, quite a bit during a hectic rookie season that culminated with the highest of personal (rookie of the year in MLS) and team accomplishments (MLS Cup for the Sounders).
For once, homegrown Sounders striker Jordan Morris wasn’t hanging with his best soccer friend.
Morris leaned on midfielder Cristian Roldan, the former Huskies star, quite a bit during a hectic rookie season that culminated with the highest of personal and team accomplishments. About the only time the pair didn’t prove inseparable was during their abbreviated offseason, when Morris vacationed in Costa Rica with his parents and Roldan headed to his Los Angeles-area home.
Last week, when Morris was done with his January training with the U.S. men’s national team in Carson, Calif., he popped back home to Mercer Island for a day to attend a local sports gala. The next morning, he boarded a plane back to California again to visit some friends.
“I’ve been trying to get out of Seattle, get away a little bit, see my friends and focus on my life outside of soccer,” Morris said by phone from California during that brief trip. “Because during the season, your life is so demanding and so focused on soccer that you’re always doing that. I think you can definitely hit a wall. So, when you have these times to get away, I think it’s important to do that.”
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Three days later, Morris was back here, entering the locker room at CenturyLink Field to join the Sounders for his first preseason workout with them. Among the first to greet him was Roldan, the friend he mostly counts on to get his mind off soccer once the season begins.
After the workout, they headed off the field together, with Roldan continuing on to the locker room while Morris stopped to chat briefly about their friendship.
They’d played against each other in college and hit it off quickly last season, with Morris, 22, eight months older than Roldan, 21, then entering his second pro campaign alongside the rookie. Though Morris, a highly decorated Stanford grad, had already played with the USMNT while still in college, the transition to the pro game still took adjustments.
“You get nervous to come in to a new environment and a new team, and it’s always nice to have someone you can be close to and rely on,” Morris said. “Cristian and I bonded pretty quickly. So, having him to hang out with and go through the ups and downs with was awesome.”
And in the beginning, at least, the “downs” were multiplying quicker than the “ups” for Morris. He went scoreless through the first five games, missing a handful of good chances.
As happens during such stretches, particularly when the team struggles, the usual chatter focused on Morris’ propensity for using his right foot far more than his left. For an athlete already facing pressure to perform in his hometown, the queries about his missing left foot — Morris says he’s “pigeon toed” and it’s easier to go with his right — gradually became more irksome than they should have been.
“It can be frustrating at some point,” Morris said of the critiques. “But every player goes through it with different things. (Roldan) makes fun of me for the same stuff, but it’s lighthearted. He’s really good with stuff like that. He doesn’t let it get to him.”
Morris knew better than to let the small stuff get to him as well. He’d spent his formative years alongside soccer pros courtesy of his father Michael, the Sounders’ team doctor the past 15 years.
But watching pros, even up close, isn’t the same as being one. Especially not one as touted as Morris, a Mercer Island High School and Eastside FC product expected to perform right away for his hometown team.
Roldan had been through some of that during his rookie season in 2015, having been known locally from his University of Washington days. He was quick to remind Morris there was a reason he’d been so highly coveted.
“I told him to not really care about what people say and play his game honestly,” Roldan said. “Once he figured out what he was good at and our team figured out what he was good at, things started going really well. I think him not really letting the pressure and people affect him was really key.”
Morris finally scored in his sixth contest, flicking in a 71st-minute pass from Andreas Ivanschitz against the Philadelphia Union at home. He’d add goals in each of the next three games, and a Seattle star was en route to being born.
Still, his first-season tribulations weren’t done. The Sounders won just four of their first 15 games, leading to the firing of longtime coach Sigi Schmid.
In June, Morris was left off the Copa America tournament roster by since-fired USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Irked, he headed off for some day hiking in the mountains near Snoqualmie.
Roldan was there to help him through it.
The pair would hang out at his place, or at Morris’ parents’ house, playing video games. “It helps us not think about what’s going on in our lives,” Roldan said. “Just having a buddy around, obviously, is what you need.”
But eventually, they’d also chat about how things were going, what to watch out for and how they could improve things for themselves and the team.
“I thought he handled the pressure a lot better towards the middle of the season, and it shows,” Roldan said.
Morris continued to improve under newly installed coach Brian Schmetzer, bettering his touch around the net enough to finish the regular season with 12 goals — five of them game-winners. That goal total was an MLS rookie record for an American-born player and helped Morris clinch Rookie of the Year.
But he wasn’t done yet, adding two more goals in the playoffs, including the winner in a 1-0 victory over Colorado that propelled the Sounders into the championship game. Roldan could sense his friend’s confidence building, right on through the title win over Toronto and into USMNT camp a month later.
They exchanged texts throughout the winter, as Morris hit the beach in Costa Rica for 10 days, then returned to Seattle for Christmas. All told, Morris had three weeks off — getting his wisdom teeth pulled in the process — before joining the national team’s camp.
Even after only a couple of Sounders workouts together, Roldan noticed a difference in his pal.
“It seems like he’s more assertive.” Roldan said. “Not necessarily selfish, but he’ll take more shots.”
Sounders veteran Brad Evans, who had been in USMNT camp with Morris, agreed his play took on a more aggressive look.
“He came in demanding a lot of himself,” Evans said. “He demanded the ball, which is something that, early on, I don’t think Jordan was that guy.”
Morris says he’s never been a particularly “loud” personality on or off the field. But he sensed his confidence growing as last season progressed and feels it carried into the national camp.
He scored the lone goal of a 1-0 win over Jamaica in a friendly that closed camp out. Roldan was among the first to text him that night.
Now, back in Seattle and glancing off to the CenturyLink Field tunnel Roldan had just exited, Morris quipped: “I’m sure we’ll get together later and talk about it. We have some catching up to do.”