Jurgen Klinsmann would later say that he and his staff had been tracking him for about two years. But Jordan Morris remembers the circumstances of his big break a little differently.
“The [US] national team happened to train at Stanford when I was there, and then we were fortunate to play a scrimmage against them, and I had a good game,” Morris recalled in a conversation with MLSsoccer.com from Columbus on Thursday as he and his Seattle Sounders teammates prepared for their fourth MLS Cup appearance in five years. “Then you go from there into the national team. It was such an interesting way to make your way up through those ranks.
“Honestly, I have Jurgen to thank for so much.”
This was May 2014, and the USMNT had chosen Morris’ school – he was wrapping up his freshman year at the time – as the site of their final camp before departing for the World Cup in Brazil. Near the end of that camp Klinsmann would stun the world by cutting Landon Donovan from his final roster; a few days beforehand the Northern California campus provided the chance encounter that kick-started Morris’ career.
“These guys are scrimmaging a college team, getting ready for the World Cup, I’m sure they're like, what are we doing playing this team?” he explained, noting that he’d only earned limited time with Tab Ramos’ U-20s up to that point. “But for us it was the moment of our lives – we were all so excited to play the national team and hyped up, and I scored in that game.
“That scrimmage was where Jurgen saw me, really for the first time, and then after the World Cup he called me and I went into my first camp.”
That in itself was historic, the first NCAA player on the USMNT in 15 years. A few months later he’d score the game-winner in his first start, a friendly win over Mexico. The following winter, after leading the Cardinal to a College Cup national championship, he’d turn pro, passing on an offer from Werder Bremen to sign a record Homegrown deal with the Sounders.
That choice – “this massive decision with all these people weighing in on what's best for my future,” as he puts it – instantly made him the flashpoint of the Europe-vs.-MLS debate that erupted under Klinsmann’s tenure and still smolders today. His own club's euphoric hype upped the ante even further.
As obviously talented as he was, Morris wasn’t entirely ready for the spotlight.
“It was actually a very tough time,” he said. “I got thrust in the public eye – I always had dreams to play for the national team and be a professional athlete, but I never knew if it would come true. And so to all of a sudden get thrust into the national team picture … it kind of went from zero to 100. It's hard to manage all that at first.”
Everything in Morris’ life was subjected to scrutiny, from his infrequent use of his weaker left foot to his beloved dogs. Some skeptics lambasted a perceived lack of ambition or hunger. But as he prepares to fight for his third league title in his four seasons on the pitch, this time as a member of the MLS Best XI, it’s hard to second-guess the path he’s chosen.
Not only because of all the hardware he’s racked up over the past five years, but because of the vast growth and evolution in his own skill set.
“I 100% think that that was the right decision for me. I feel like I've developed really well as a player here,” he said. “I've been playing consistently, starting consistently, going and playing in big games like this game coming up this weekend, being able to win a couple championships.”
A hard-running frontrunner when Klinsmann’s head got turned, Morris is now a goal-dangerous left winger, equally adept at going for goal or combining with teammates like Raul Ruidiaz and Nico Lodeiro. He’s learned how to channel that searing speed for maximum impact, and turned that problematic left foot into another tool in his arsenal. His work rate and commitment are now accompanied by a refined instinct for key moments and subtleties.
“It was just a case of playing on the left, using my left foot more, getting more comfortable going to my left and putting balls into the box," said Morris. "It's something that I like doing, that move to get to my left foot, and so I think working on that has been important. It helps when you're playing with players like Nico and Raul, and my understanding with Nico is something that's really special for me, because I always describe him as a quarterback – when he gets the ball and I make a run, he's going to find me.”
Much of this growth can be traced back to his biggest setback to date: the catastrophic knee injury in a February 2018 Concacaf Champions League match that sidelined him for a full year.
“When I had soccer taken away from me, I realized how much I loved it and how much I missed it. Not being able to do what you love every single day was really tough,” Morris, now 26, explained. “I told myself when I came back that I wasn't going to take one day for granted, one training day. Games are easy not to take for granted, but being out there training every day grinding, I wasn't going to take those days for granted … when I came back I had this new fire and this new energy, and I think that mentally helped me grow a lot.”
His coach watched a solid player blossom into an assassin.
“In Jordan's case, he was able to A-number one, come back from the ACL. B-number two was doing a lot of physical work, prep work on his body to keep him healthy and strong, because he has Type 1 [diabetes],” said Brian Schmetzer on Wednesday. “And then he was watching more games, watching more soccer, because that's all he could do. So you combine all those things, and you're seeing what you got out of it, which is a tremendously talented young man with still even room to grow.”
For a soccer nation that habitually frets over its young phenoms, it’s a journey worth noting: A kid with a good head on his shoulders, to use an old sports cliché, has matured into a habitual winner with a bulletproof mentality. His team’s dominance of MLS on his watch, combined with his own individual progress, add a new lens to the conversation of yesteryear. Is Morris running out of mountains to climb in Cascadia?
Two years ago he signed a five-year contract extension reportedly worth some $5 million over its full duration, and he clearly loves both his home region and his club. He’s earned a place in Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT plans. He and the Sounders have made the MLS Cup Playoffs their annual playground. He proposed – successfully – to his longtime girlfriend Eliza after last year’s championship run, and he runs his own foundation to help kids with Type 1 diabetes learn to thrive like he has.
Still, younger waves of US talent have made their way to some of the planet’s biggest clubs, and Morris mentions the possibility of “the itch to want to try something like that,” to “continue to grow and try to prove myself at that level” when the topic is broached.
“I definitely have goals and aspirations and if the right European team or situation came, it would definitely be something that I would have to take a close look at,” he told reporters in a Thursday conference call. “The whole focus is on this game this weekend, and then after that we'll see.”
There’s a big world out there to explore.
“Maybe he wasn't ready early on in his career,” said Schmetzer. “Everybody made a big deal out of, ‘why didn’t he go to in Europe,’ and Klinsmann and some of the other people who criticized him.
“Well, right now I would say he's done pretty well for us. And if he makes a decision now to try in Europe or a different league, certainly I would be happy to see him have success. I'd be sad that he left, of course, but if the kid did well, it would be a great story.”