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Jordan Morris ready to restart career sidetracked by injury as Sounders open season against Cincinnati

UPDATED: Fri., March 1, 2019, 5:24 p.m.

Seattle Sounders forward Jordan Morris drives against Club Nacional during the second half of an exhibition soccer match on  Feb. 20  in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
Seattle Sounders forward Jordan Morris drives against Club Nacional during the second half of an exhibition soccer match on Feb. 20 in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
By Tim Booth Associated Press

TUKWILA, Wash. – In the moments when Jordan Morris would recoil, when he tried to isolate himself from friends, family, anything to do with soccer while dealing with a potentially career-altering knee injury, Cristian Roldan knew there was always a way to engage his friend no matter how down Morris was about his situation.

Fortnite. It all comes back to Fortnite.

“We would play a lot of video games, distract him from everything else. Not even bring up soccer,” Roldan said.

Twelve months after suffering a torn ACL in his right knee, nearly 18 months since he last played a full 90 minutes for either club or country, Morris has snapped out of his funk. He’s back on the field trying to prove his run of bad injury luck was just a fluke and rediscover his spot as part of America’s soccer future.

He’ll return to MLS regular-season duty Saturday night when the Seattle Sounders host expansion team FC Cincinnati. Barring an unexpected change, it’ll be his first match started for the club since Feb. 22, 2018. Between that night in Honduras and now, Morris went from being depressed and reclusive, to determined and defiant in not letting his first major injury derail a promising career.

But in rediscovering his resolution, Morris also endured dark moments, when friends like Roldan had to use video games and random dinners to snap Morris out of his funk.

“To be completely honest, it was really hard. I spent a lot of time by myself at first, and I could see in my relationships people were worried about me a little bit just because I was spending a lot of time alone. I needed that time,” Morris said inside the Sounders training facility. “I was down. I didn’t really want to be talking with anyone. I just kind of needed my space. I kind of dreaded coming in here because I just wanted to be alone for a while. For a couple of months, that was really hard and I needed people to lean on.”

It’s been a long time since anyone has seen Morris in a nonexhibition playing a full match completely healthy. There was a hamstring injury in the fall of 2017 that cost Morris most of the MLS playoffs outside of two short substitute appearances, and more important kept him out of World Cup qualifiers that ultimately kept the U.S. out of Russia.

The hamstring injury was only the precursor. With one wrong step in Central America, Morris lost all of 2018.

“I think the toughest part was not being able to prove myself. Out of sight, out of mind a little bit. That I wasn’t able to be out there every day proving myself and then also getting to do what I love,” he said. “It was hard mentally to take a step away from the game, but I think it was important when I was finally able to do that to kind of say, look, my focus now, don’t worry about anything else, just get my knee better and now that I’m back this year, focus on proving myself again.”

Morris’ return also comes with positional stability he rarely had in the first two seasons of his Sounders career. There may be times where Morris again plays at the top of Seattle’s attack, but the addition of Raul Ruidiaz last year provides the Sounders the opportunity to slide Morris out to the wing as part of a dangerous three-man attacking midfield, along with Nicolas Lodeiro and Victor Rodriguez.

“I think that puts Jordan in a role where he can succeed. He gets the ball on his dominant right foot, allows him to get the ball in some wide channels, and now he doesn’t have to be the primary scoring option,” Seattle general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “When he was our lead scorer, he had to be. We didn’t have a lot of other choices. … Jordan almost had to do it all in terms of our success. Now if you have Raul and Victor and (Lodeiro) and Cristian attacking from his strongest position in the middle of the park, now Jordan just has to be a cog in the machine.”

If Morris can find comfort and stability playing on the wing, it could be the conduit for rediscovering his spot for the U.S. Even though Morris wasn’t part of the January training camp, he was invited to spend a few days with new coach Gregg Berhalter to get a sense of the new system being implemented and how he could fit into the future plans.

Before the hamstring injury in fall 2017, the goal for Morris was always focused on the World Cup in Russia. Now it’s being part of the revitalization of the U.S. national team and being back in the World Cup in 2022.

“Thankfully, in my career before I didn’t have a ton of injuries. These were my first really big ones and I just missed it,” Morris said. “I missed it a lot. It really felt like forever, and it’s just amazing to be back.”

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