TUKWILA, Wash. – There’s a new nastiness around Sounders FC.
Well, as Jordan Morris slipped into his genteel off-field persona after training Wednesday, a teammate’s description of his play this season was off-putting.
“I wouldn’t say nasty, like I’m getting into players and doing dirty tackles and that kind of stuff,” said Morris in response to Cristian Roldan’s assessment of watching his close friend from the midfield position.
Roldan knew Morris would downplay the fire shown on the field. But there’s no denying what’s on display in Morris’ return from a seasonlong absence in 2018 due to a torn ACL.
Morris’ technique is sharper. His pace is quicker. His push to score is more aggressive.
The only negative is the visual improvement hasn’t been enough to generate wins for the Sounders.
“Jordan, sometimes in his first or second (MLS) year, lacked a little bit of that strong mentality,” Roldan said. “It’s unfortunate to go through an injury like that. Now that he’s gone through the whole process of getting back and doing all of the tedious little things that make him a competitor, you see it on the field.
“You see him being a little dirtier and stronger in voicing his opinion. … He’s pushing the limits to himself.”
Morris, who starred at Mercer Island (Washington) High School, made his pro debut in 2016, earning MLS Rookie of the Year honors as the Sounders won the MLS Cup. But his MLS encore was cut three months short due to a torn hamstring in 2017. Then Morris missed all of 2018 – including playing for the U.S. men’s national team in World Cup qualifiers – with a torn ACL.
Being stripped of what felt like everything created a singular focus for Morris. Not winning. Staying on the field. He’s done that, starting six of the past seven matches and scoring three goals with three assists.
“There’s a little bit more of an edge in me to prove myself,” he said. “A new attitude coming back from injury. Both to be thankful to be on the field every day, but also have this attitude that every day I want to get better and be the best player I can be because it can get taken away from you pretty quickly. Having that little bit of an edge has helped me.”
Roldan and younger brother Alex, a Sounders reserve, spent a lot of time with Morris at his family’s Mercer Island home trying to keep the forward positive through rehabilitation last year.
Morris, 24, also sought therapy to work through the loss of playing. There was uncertainty as his body had minor setbacks and the Sounders made roster moves that impacted his position, mainly the signing of striker Raul Ruidiaz, a Peruvian designated player, in June 2018.
Under coach Brian Schmetzer’s regime, Morris moved to the left wing position. True, he was slotted at the spot during the run to win the MLS Cup, but now it’s expected. The designation forced Morris to improve his crossing skills as he also has started from the right wing due to matchups and player injuries.
He admits the changes coupled with returning from injury haven’t been easy. Morris even had to work from reverting back to the dark space he was in while rehabilitating his ACL because 12 games into this season, he suffered a hamstring injury.
“The toughest part about going through an injury like that (ACL) is actually the mental side of it, so talking to someone helped a little bit,” Morris said. “When I got hurt (in May), it was right before the Gold Cup. I thought it could affect those chances to make that team. A lot of thoughts kind of went through my head. It was pretty tough to take for a bit.”
The hamstring injury ended up being minor, Morris beginning the rehab process two days after suffering the injury 53 minutes into a win against Orlando City SC at CenturyLink Field. Morris also made the USMNT, helping it advance to the Gold Cup final, losing to Mexico.
For the Sounders, one of Morris’ strongest games was against Sporting Kansas City earlier this month where he had four shots on goal and scored twice. His best goal this season might be the score in Houston in July where, with a defender on his back, he stretched himself in determination to get the ball into the net.
But the efforts had split results.
“Jordan is still evolving as a player,” said Garth Lagerwey, Sounders general manager and president of soccer. “He’s played three different positions as a pro and the next step is to figure out where he’s absolutely best suited and try to completely master that one spot. Flexibility is a tool and it’s a good thing. But ultimately for him to hit his highest potential, it’ll be to figure out how to play one spot among the elite players in the league.”
A little nastiness could help in reaching that goal.
“Everything is so close,” Morris said. “We have an opportunity to make a run, so there’s no reason to be completely down and change everything. …We’ve got to continue to be positive and to have fun out there.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.