A performance like this was coming. You could feel it, over the last couple months, but especially in the last few games. It really started in earnest with Jordan Morris’ rampaging runs against the Portland Timbers, probably the first game of his professional career where he didn’t factor into the scoring but still managed to make a significant impact.
Since then, Morris has been playing with a different kind of fire, a different purpose. The way he chases down loose balls, the way he holds off defenders, the way he imposes himself on the game. It was just last week that I was raving about his holdup play and extolling the growth he’s shown over the course of the year.
But until Sunday, Morris hadn’t put together a truly dominant performance. He hadn’t really taken a game by the back of the neck and bent it to his will. That he saved his first-ever two-goal performance for a road game against the LA Galaxy on national television, with the Sounders’ season possibly hanging in the balance, speaks to just how special it was.
As he has been since Clint Dempsey’s medical condition was revealed, Morris was asked to be a lone forward in a 4-2-3-1. That meant he was often on an island, taking on two center backs all by himself. As usual, it was a mostly thankless job for much of the afternoon. But there were early indications that this week might be a bit different in that regard.
Early on, Morris was able to get a solid look from about 20 yards. He put a strong shot on frame, but it was well covered. It was an early example of how he wasn’t content to just let the game come to him, though.
Then in the second half, Morris worked a give-and-go with Nicolas Lodeiro that forced Galaxy goalkeeper Brian Rowe into a more challenging save.
That kind of aggressive attacking only served to be an appetizer for the main course. With the game tied at 1-1, Alvaro Fernandez lofted a speculative long ball down the sideline. Morris started maybe a step behind center back Daniel Steres, who was in prime position to win the ball. Morris closed that initial gap in an instant, got the first touch to put the ball into space, jostled momentarily with Steres and then took off. Suddenly, Morris had a couple steps on Steres, who was literally left grabbing at air.
All that was left was the finish, and oh what a finish it was.
Morris looked over his shoulder just to size up the situation, set himself and then shot. Coming from as wide an angle as he was, Morris had little choice but to hit it with the outside of his right foot. It bent beautifully, striking the far side netting.
“I know you guys don’t like it when I just use my right,” Morris told reporters half-jokingly, “but I had to use that one there. It’s a little more natural to me.”
The finish was truly gorgeous, but the setup was the kind of thing that drives defenders to contemplate retirement. Morris didn’t just undress Steres with a clever touch, he stole his dignity with the way he left the defender in his wake.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Steres insisted he’d been manhandled. How else could he look himself in the mirror when he got home?
“That second goal I’ll say I got fouled because I thought I did,” Steres said. “I know he’s fast. Look, I don’t think he’s that much faster than me. Like I said I’m getting pulled back from behind and I thought I had good position on him. He got a little toe to it and I probably should have just gone through and I would have taken a foul or gone for the ball. He’s pulling my arm back and once he did that he was gone. I wasn’t going to catch him.”
Of course, Morris wasn’t quite done. About 10 minutes later, he put in a gorgeous chip to Fernandez at the back post. Fernandez headed it back across goal to Nelson Valdez, whose shot was saved. But Morris was there for the rebound. Earlier in the year, he might have tried to hit it first time, being as it fell to his right foot. Showing some maturity, though, Morris took a touch to put it away from traffic and to his left foot.
Morris cooly put it inside the near post.
Morris now has 12 goals, the second-most ever by an MLS rookie. No American rookie has ever scored more. Even before Sunday, there was no doubt Morris belongs here, and we have every reason to believe he can play at even higher levels. He’s shown a steady progress, improving little facets along the way. But this was the game he seemingly put it all together, the game where it looked like he really arrived.
It’s entirely possible that Morris will never live up to the hilariously high expectations some have foisted upon him. Don’t let that diminish what he has already become.
“He is special,” said none other than Landon Donovan, rejecting questions about Morris’ “potential.” “First of all, his work rate is really good, so teammates love playing with him. He’s relentless in the way he attacks, and he’s good in front of goal. He’s got all the makings to be very good and I thought he was excellent today.”
Poor Nelson: It’s becoming increasingly likely that Valdez will end this season without a goal. It won’t be for lack of opportunity or effort. Once again, Valdez was a second-half sub. Once again, he brought energy. Once again, he put himself into dangerous positions. Once again, he couldn’t find the back of the net.
This time, Valdez got off a pair of good shots. The first was saved and created the rebound Morris scored on. Valdez got one more good look off a cross from Herculez Gomez almost right after Robbie Keane’s penalty. Valdez made a great run between several defenders and beat Rowe, but this shot hit the crossbar. Those chances almost certainly put Valdez over 3.00 xG for the season, by far the highest total for any player without an actual goal to show for it.
Valdez is far from worthless. He’s proved useful as a late sub that helps shore up a result, as well as drawing raves for being a positive locker room presence. He’s just not producing at anything like the level you expect from a Designated Player.
Defense hits a bump: Since returning from injury, Román Torres has been remarkably effective, showing almost no signs of rust. That wasn’t so much the case on Sunday. Torres appeared to be daring Keane to beat him over the top, a curious decision to say the least. The Sounders were a bit lucky Keane didn’t finish one early chance where he was effectively left unmarked in the box and he was constantly pushing the offside line. The defense as a whole was also a little slow to react on a couple looks from just outside the penalty area early on.
Keane finally came good in the 20th minute and the Galaxy had a well-deserved lead.
The defense settled in shortly thereafter, but the Galaxy still finished with 20 shots, including nine on frame and eight from inside the penalty area. Scoring four goals papers over a lot of shortcomings, but the Sounders are going to have to play better defensively.
A shoutout for Schmetz: It doesn’t take any kind of genius to realize the Sounders have been dramatically improved under Brian Schmetzer, going 5-1-3 in nine games. But it’s not just raw results, it’s how they’ve achieved them that’s really interesting.
The most notable difference is how much more effective the Sounders are at coming from behind. This was the Sounders second come-from-behind win and they are now 2-1-2 (eight points) when giving up the first goal under Schmetzer. The Sounders had gone 0-12-2 when giving up the first goal under Sigi Schmid this year and hadn’t won a game in which they trailed since 2014.
This is still a flawed team, but the Sounders under Schmetzer have shown a resiliency that wasn’t always there before. That might be the best case for his interim tag being removed short of qualifying for the playoffs (and possibly knocking out the Timbers in the process).