Why you should care
“GOOOOOAL!” follows him wherever he goes.
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A pass never meant for Jordan Morris found its way to him after a deflection. Morris broke for the goal. He outpaced defenders. The 20-year-old took one touch with his preferred right foot before slotting a shot under the outstretched goalkeeper, who could only watch as the forward recorded his first international goal. The U.S. Men’s National Team moved past a 0–0 deadlock against Mexico. Momentum shifted.
The friendly game, held in April 2015, ended 2–0 in America’s favor and left the soccer community abuzz over the now-21-year-old Morris. Was he the next American superstar? Standing at 5-foot-11 with a signature bit of light-brown hair brushed to the right, the baby-faced Stanford sophomore hadn’t even signed a professional contract at the time. His junior year, he scored 13 goals and won the 2015 MAC Hermann Trophy, the top individual soccer college award in the U.S., among other accolades. After signing his first professional contract in January, he transitioned quickly to Major League Soccer and has scored nine goals so far in his rookie season, becoming the leading scorer for the Seattle Sounders. Teammates are noticing, to say the least. “He’s putting the ball in the back of the net, and he’s showing how dangerous he can be,” says Herculez Gomez, a veteran of the National Team and Morris’ teammate in Seattle.
America has never had a consistent soccer craze, but Morris’ abilities are a sign that the sport’s tides may be shifting in the U.S. The MLS’s infrastructure has grown in the past 20 years; U.S. soccer academies can now rival those abroad, according to MLSsoccer.com senior editor Matthew Doyle. Local players can go pro faster. “The guys that are coming out of MLS academies are making quicker adjustments to the pro game,” says Doyle. Many of the best still go to Europe, but Morris didn’t. He turned down German club SV Werder Bremen in favor of his beloved Sounders, an unthinkable move a decade ago. The German club’s CEO, Thomas Eichin, said he “respected his decision” in a press release. “I know a lot of people wanted me to go over to Europe, but I felt it was the best decision for me to stay in MLS,” Morris, who has a “Carpe diem” tattoo on his right arm, tells OZY. “I make decisions based on what I feel will make me happy.”
He signed the biggest homegrown contract in MLS history.
Growing up in the rainy Starbucks city, Morris found his character tested early. At 9 years old, he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, which keeps him from generating enough insulin to produce energy. But he was in good hands: His father is the Sounders’ top doctor. “It was tough at first when I found out, but [the doctors] said that the more sports I play, the better,” Morris recalls.
In 2009, the Sounders joined MLS as its 15th franchise — the league plans to expand to 24 teams by 2020. In that inaugural game, the then-14-year-old, watching from the stands, “looked at my brothers and said, ‘I really want to play in this field someday.’ ” He might have headed to the Sounders just out of high school, but he decided to attend college for two years, making his MLS debut this spring. He signed the biggest homegrown contract — a contract offered to players developed in a team’s youth academies — in MLS history, to the tune of nearly $200,000 his rookie season, according to information released by the players’ union. And while he struggled early on, he went on to score in five consecutive games, tying a rookie record in MLS.
Today, three million youths play soccer in the U.S., compared to 1.5 million in 1990. But more importantly, the youth leagues are providing more than workouts for preteens — they’re making it possible for young people to imagine playing for their hometowns, explains Jeremy Gunn, the Stanford head coach. “People 10 years older than him didn’t get to do that as much. As a result, the level of play for each generation moving forward will continue to grow at a rapid rate.”
Still, the Sounders are dangerously close to missing the playoffs for the first time in MLS history. And Morris may not establish himself as a serious contender and it may take more time for him to fully develop his game. While going overseas may have expedited his growth, his experience in MLS has forced him to take responsibility for a team much quicker. On the field, Morris is a great finisher with the ability to outpace defenders and create space for his teammates, but he still has to work on some glaring flaws. “At some point in his career, someone should’ve taught him how to use his left foot,” says Doyle, who also points out Morris’ deficiencies with hold-up play, where the ball is held while teammates move downfield.
So where does Morris stand in comparison to other top prospects around the world? While he’s not expected to be the next Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, the hope is that he can become what Javier “Chicharito” Hernández is for Mexico: a top goal scorer for the country and a prominent star in Europe. He’s also still young. And tough-minded. In one particular Sounders training session in Los Angeles, veteran teammate Brad Evans screamed in frustration after Morris missed a sitter in front of the goal. His response? Two flawless finishes in the following two plays — a sign of good things to come for the Sounders and U.S. soccer.