The eye rolling was epic.
Wrinkled brows. Sighs. Big, sweeping head tilts followed by ocular lolls that defied basic biology. Brian Schmetzer, coach of the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer, puffed out his eyes so much he resembled an emoji. Garth Lagerwey, the team’s general manager, nearly tipped over in his office chair because of the sheer force of his facial exasperation.
And then, sitting in the living room of the house he grew up in and in which he still lives, Jordan Morris tried to be a bit more subtle with his own visual groan.
“Oh, wait — you saw that?” he said after his eyes quickly, deftly, darted into his cranium. He apologized. “At this point, it just sort of happens,” he said.
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The reactions came in response to what Morris refers to as “the label stuff.” The Label lingers over everything Morris does as a soccer player, over every game he plays, over every decision he makes. It is ubiquitous.
And for that reason, any sentence with the words “next,” “American,” and “soccer star” sends irises careening back into eye sockets.
These eye rolls are not meant to be disrespectful, Morris explained. It is just that the label stuff can feel a bit ridiculous.
Can Morris, who scored his first national team goal for the United States, against Mexico, when he was still in college and who, at age 21, is the Seattle Sounders’ leading scorer in his first professional season, be the first great American goal scorer to star abroad? Will he lead the national team to the glory its fans crave?
Such questions are not original. They were asked long ago about Jamar Beasley and Eddie Gaven and, more recently, about Christian Pulisic and Julian Green. Most famously, they were asked about Freddy Adu, who was in an advertising campaign with Pelé when he was 14 and so inspired by the experience that he has gone on to play for 13 teams, and counting, since.
And yet, still, the label stuff persists.
“That isn’t the way we look at it, anyway,” Morris’ father, Mike, said. “If any of that happens, great. But we just want him to have a long, successful, healthy professional career. Would that be so bad?”
Reacting to criticism
Shortly after lunch in late August, Morris climbed into a luxury bus parked next to the Sounders’ training facility. Taylor Twellman, a former forward for the national team and now the top soccer analyst for ESPN, was going to interview Morris ahead of the Sounders’ game with Portland on Sunday.
Their rapport was good. The only hiccup came when Twellman asked, through a wide smile, “So, do you have a left foot?”
Morris hesitated. The question was meant to give Morris a chance to make a joke about his perceived reliance on his right foot — a point Morris has conceded is not unfair — but upon hearing it, Morris frowned. Later, he said that he was not bothered by the question, but that it was emblematic of how he is learning to react to criticism. Put another way: His reaction was about the label stuff.
Lagerwey, the Sounders’ general manager, thinks an introspective outlook is a direct result of Morris’ staying at Stanford for three years instead of turning professional as a teenager. Being around smart people in all disciplines, Lagerwey said, “reminds people that you’re not necessarily such a special snowflake in terms of the rest of the world, and from a life perspective, that can be valuable.”
Staying at Stanford, however, was not a universally praised decision. Neither was Morris’ choice last winter to pass up a chance to sign with Werder Bremen, a German club, to join his hometown Sounders.
But this season has been formative. After his much-publicized decision to join MLS, Morris missed a clear scoring chance in his opening game and he was goalless through five matches.
The team struggled, too, winning only four of its first 15 games, a start that eventually led the team to fire its longtime coach, Sigi Schmid. Then Morris and the under-23 national team failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics, and Klinsmann left him off the Copa América roster.
“It hurt him,” said Schmetzer. “But then I think he saw that it could also be an opportunity.”
The heart of the Sounders
On Aug. 28 in Portland, there was little for the Sounders to be excited about — the archrival Timbers had just thrashed them, 4-2. But one of the Sounders’ rare high points came just after halftime, when Nicolas Lodeiro whipped in a perfect cross from the flank and Morris rifled a header into the net.
It was Morris’ ninth goal of the season, and his fifth since the Copa América snub. Morris, more than ever, is now the heart of the Sounders’ attack with Clint Dempsey out indefinitely while he is evaluated for an irregular heartbeat.
The goal against the Timbers, then, was important, but there have been other moments for Morris recently, too. A powerful run with the ball at his feet as he took on a defender. A hard, low shot that forced a rebound in front of goal. A strong track back to help on defense. Even Morris acknowledges that there remain too many missed chances in front of goal — “My finishing is still raw,” he said — but the skills that got him the Label are clearly there.
Still, it has all come so quickly. Growing up, Morris was not a fixture on regional teams or in all-star programs. Five years ago, he was not even a forward (he played midfield). Three years ago, he was on a Sounders academy team asking Dempsey for a picture at the end of a game. Then came the call-up to national team camp.
Now, suddenly, he is at the fore of a transition to youth for his home club and maybe for his country. It is flattering and demanding. It is heady and heavy. It is endless.
It is the label stuff.
“I can handle it,” Morris said. His eyes never moved.