The close-ups weren’t of Clint Dempsey, the talisman just one goal shy of sole possession of the all-time US men’s scoring mark. They weren’t of Jozy Altidore, whose picture-perfect free kick gave the Americans an early lead. Nor Michael Bradley, the tournament’s Golden Ball winner.
As his image was broadcast to the world, Jordan Morris rubbed his eyes, tears of joyous disbelief seemingly perched on the brink of escape. His best friend in the entire world, fellow Sounder Cristian Roldan, wrapped Morris up in a bear hug and lifted him into the air.
In 40 minutes, Morris had gone from potential goat – turned inside out by Je-Vaughn Watson on a corner kick that his fellow MLSer to bang in for the equalizer – to history maker. He felt that emotional swing more acutely than anyone else.
“I was nervous,” he told FS1’s Jenny Taft after the match. “It was my guy that scored, so I was trying to make up for it any way I could. Obviously, I take responsibility for that, but luckily I put it in the back of the net.”
In four short years, Morris has gone from a seemingly-out-of-nowhere prodigy to national champion, MLS Cup winner and Gold Cup hero, his 88th-minute thumper sure to be replayed every two years for at least the next decade. He appeared in every game of the tournament for Bruce Arena, and his three goals tied Golden Boot winner Alphonso Davies atop the Gold Cup charts.
Morris did it under pressure, too, career-defining pressure that can make even the most seasoned pro shrink. This may have been labelled a B-team tournament, but like the rest of us, Morris knew he was playing for more than a trophy. He was playing for place on the team that boards a plane for Russia next year, assuming all goes to plan in qualifying.
Bruce Arena has the final say, but Morris proved he belongs on that 747 and barring injury – knock on wood – I expect him to be there, a 23-year-old making his wildest childhood dreams come true.
Bradley will be the captain and the pacemaker, Altidore the player whose talent can elevate the US from solid to special and Dempsey the swaggering super sub, but it may just be Morris who pops up in a big moment and makes the difference.
Morris may not be perfect – someone in the comment section will invariably bash his left foot and occasional long touches – but he brings a skill set, level of versatility and willingness to sacrifice for the common good that no one else on the roster can match.
I don’t need to explain his speed, the sort of burst that eliminates defenders entirely, or his knack for scoring big goals. Those qualities might be enough to convince Arena to bring Morris to the biggest tournament on the planet, but it’s an ability to fill multiple holes in the roster puzzle that pushes him over the edge.
He can run the channels with another forward (Altidore, most likely) in a 4-4-2, he can play wide left in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 and bring both defensive industry and attacking verve and there’s no ego to tell him that he deserves more than what he’s given. All month, Morris did what was necessary, whatever Arena asked.
Oh, and he played this tournament on a bothersome ankle many thought he should have rested. He was selfless, and in the end he was the man who made the difference.
“It’s just an honor to be a part of the team,” Morris told Taft, the sort of quote he delivers in spades, shifting the focus from himself to the team.
Come next summer, I expect that honor will thrust him on to the biggest stage the sport has to offer.
Morris may not start a match. He probably won’t play hero. He may not score a goal or have a marquee moment.
But through six games at the Gold Cup Morris proved he belongs in Arena’s 23-man roster next summer, that he’s an asset with a future that spans the next decade, and that it would be a mistake to leave him home next summer when yet more history is waiting to be made.