Aidan Morris is a grinder.
You can see it in his play as a box-to-box midfielder as he marauds all over the pitch to win loose balls, get his team out of tight spots in possession and even make surging runs into the attack.
With more tackles than anybody in MLS (per TruMedia via StatsPerform), a stunning 92.0% pass completion and six-goal contributions to his name, there’s very little the Columbus Crew homegrown midfielder can’t, or won’t, do to win.
But that doesn’t mean he’s satisfied, even with his strong 2023 form resulting in a selection as a league representative for Wednesday's MLS All-Star Game presented by Target. And his head coach Wilfred Nancy – a grinder in his own right who worked as both an academy and first-team assistant coach for a decade before getting his shot at the top job for CF Montréal in 2021 – is making sure Morris continues to improve.
“[Nancy’s] always working with me on developing my game, pushing me, making me uncomfortable, and putting me in game situations where I'm not used to it – just little details about the game that I've opened my eyes to,” said Morris. “Definitely, it forces you to grow.”
The strong relationship between coach and player shouldn’t come as a surprise, even if last year Morris and Nancy were in very different places (literally, in the case of Nancy) in their careers.
Just last fall, the now-Columbus Crew head coach was wrapping up a wildly successful season in charge of his then-longtime club, CF Montréal. Despite predictions that his 2022 side would barely squeak into the playoffs that year, he led them to a second-place finish in the Eastern Conference. Two months later, the French coach had left Quebec, having signed a new deal with the Columbus Crew, which the Ohio club sent undisclosed compensation to Montréal to get over the line.
Meanwhile, Morris wrapped up his 2022 on somewhat uneven ground after bouncing in and out of then-head coach Caleb Porter’s starting XI all season. In the club’s do-or-die regular-season finale against Orlando City SC, he only appeared as a sub, and the Crew lost, dashing their chances of making the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs – all that after Morris missed the entire 2021 season with a torn ACL.
Since helping the Crew lift MLS Cup as an 18-year-old – when he was called upon as a last-minute starter to replace Darlington Nagbe (who was ruled out with COVID-19) – not much had gone to plan for the Florida native.
But, in answering a question about what Columbus need to improve to take their season to a higher level (they currently sit sixth in the Eastern Conference despite regularly wowing fans and pundits alike with their scintillating offensive displays), Morris may have actually divulged the secret sauce to his comeback season under Nancy.
“Sometimes it's not going to go your way, but like coach says, it's an infinite game. So there's always going to be things to work on,” said the young US men’s national team prospect, who recently played in two Concacaf Gold Cup matches before departing camp early for personal reasons.
Infinite game indeed. According to Morris, as soon as one technical or mental hurdle is cleared under Nancy, the head coach is immediately ready with the next.
“Each week he'll give me something to work on, and then once I work on that, he’ll give me something new that's uncomfortable for me, finding the ball in the right spaces, not just going to get it and being patient, body shape, everything, all that stuff," Morris said.
If all that sounds like hard work, there's at least there’s a clear reward at the end of the tunnel. In his two seasons as head coach for Montréal, Nancy oversaw the development of multiple young players who made major transfers to European clubs at the end of the 2022 season, including Djordje Mihailovic (to AZ Alkmaar), Alistair Johnston (to Celtic FC) and Ismaël Koné (to Watford FC).
And with Morris citing the likes of young English national team star Jude Bellingham as a key influence on his game, bigger aspirations – whether with the national team or moves abroad – are likely on his radar too.
For now, though, he’s focused on his own improvement above all else: "I'm my own player, putting it all together."