In what proved one of the more momentous inflection points in his life so far, Morris was a student-athlete at Stanford University, where the USMNT held their pre-World Cup camp, and was invited to join in a few workouts after impressing in a scrimmage against the national team. On Thursday, May 22, he was in the room when Klinsmann surprised everyone by announcing his roster selections ahead of schedule, famously dropping program legend Landon Donovan.
“I was training with the team that day actually, when all the cuts were happening,” Morris told MLSsoccer.com at the USMNT’s hotel in Cincinnati on Tuesday, recalling the raw emotions of that hot day in Northern California. “I was in the locker room and I was just thinking, ‘I shouldn't be here for this. This wasn't my place to be part of this.’
“Everyone wants to make the team and be part of the team, and when those cuts happened there were people that were sad and frustrated,” he added. “As a college kid that hadn't really been part of the program, it was kind of wild for me to be in that environment.”
Stick to the basics
The Seattle Sounders star and most of his current US teammates are bearing down on a comparable moment in the coming months. This month’s slate of two friendlies (vs. Morocco, Uruguay) and two Concacaf Nations League matches (vs. Grenada, El Salvador) offers their longest stint together this year. A briefer gathering will occur around two to-be-announced friendlies in Europe during the September international window.
Then at some point, probably in early November, Gregg Berhalter and his staff will finalize which 23 or 26 (depending on FIFA’s final decision regarding roster sizes) players will board the plane to Qatar ahead of the Yanks’ Group B opener on Nov. 21. At the other end of the spectrum, at least a handful of those who’ve contributed to qualification, and probably some of those taking part in this month’s camp, will be walloped with one of the most painful disappointments of their careers.
As the old joke goes: no pressure!
“I don't try to see it as myself trying to force my way into anything. I just try to be myself, try to work hard for the team and good things will come,” said Atlanta United product George Bello, who is competing for the backup left back slot behind Jedi Robinson. “No World Cup roster spot is given. So everyone has to show what they can do and keep working hard and everything will decide itself.
“I mean, there's pressure in all sports in any given moment, but obviously there's pressure with this as well. But you’ve got to use that pressure in a good way and not let it get to you or be like, ‘Oh, I have to do this, do this.’ I just try to clear my mind and just know that I'm here for a reason.”
Amid such high stakes, between now and then the balance between individual ambition and service to the program becomes more crucial than ever.
“Yeah, it's an interesting one, because you want to continue doing what you've done to qualify, what you've done to be on the roster each and every camp,” said Morris’ club and country teammate Cristian Roldan, who has been a squad regular though a rare starter. “And sometimes people can try to overplay and feel like they're doing too much.
“When there's a little bit of pressure here with making a World Cup squad, you’ve just got to go back to the basics and do what you've been doing to get called up. For me, that's being a great team player, being a really good practice player, itching for some time and showing that I'm capable of playing here. So that's my goal for this camp, and as a team, hopefully we can get better.”
Berhalter spoke last month of his assessment that “the culture needed fixing” when he took over the program in late 2018. He and his staff – with the help of a “leadership council” of several prominent players – have endeavored to unify the group, to make it “a brotherhood” even with a high churn rate across USMNT camps due to injuries and other factors.
After Wednesday night’s 3-0 friendly win over Morocco, he pointed to the warm reception for fresh dual-national recruit Malik Tillman, even though the Bayern Munich attacker represents yet another talented competitor for a spot in Qatar.
“Sometimes when a new player comes into the group, it's very difficult for them to break in. But what I hear time and time again, when new players come into our environment, is that they're welcomed and they feel really comfortable, and they're in a good position to perform. And that's the most important thing,” said the coach.
“And I'm proud of that, because I know now is a competitive time, right? People are jockeying for positions on the World Cup team, potentially, but you don't see it from these guys. You see they work extremely hard, and they're extremely close together as a group, which is fun.”
Like Matt Turner, who is days away from departing the New England Revolution to join Arsenal, several USMNTers may be on the move in the summer window. While Berhalter encourages the pursuit of the highest possible level of club competition, losing out on regular playing time could be disastrous for World Cup hopes.
In some areas of the depth chart, like the stacked right back position, even the best-case individual scenario might not be enough to make the cut. If ever a situation called for the proverbial “mentality monsters,” it’s this one.
“It's no secret that we have so many talented right backs and the way I look at it is, DeAndre Yedlin and I are competing, Joe Scally and I are competing, Sergino [Dest] and I are competing, Shaq Moore and I are competing, and that just makes me excited,” said FC Dallas product Reggie Cannon, who started against Morocco on Tuesday.
“Because that gives me an opportunity to work on the things I need to work on and push me to be a better player while I push them to be a better player. Like I’ve said many times, competition breeds greatness. And the only way you're going to make a deep run in a World Cup is if you have players that are constantly challenging the players in front of them because again, that makes you have consistency.”
Therein lies the paradox at the heart of most top national teams: The ferocious dogfight for minutes and spots coexists with respect, camaraderie and shared purpose. It represents the apex of the high-wire act that these players have pulled off to advance this far in their careers.
“I don't have any hostility towards any of those guys. I actually welcome it, because it makes me a better player. It gives me more pressure. And it makes me more happy,” said Cannon. “Because this is the talent that the US has now. And I've always looked at it as a positive thing for my game and for the other guys’ games. So I'm really excited for what's to come, but that competition is going to make the squad very great.”
Advancing from Group B the "expectation" for USMNT at Qatar 2022 World Cup