We’ve watched the “HEART” video series. We’ve felt the hype. We may have even happily imagined all the goals that a front four of Jordan Morris, Raul Ruidiaz, Nicolas Lodeiro, and Victor Rodriguez could generate.
And yet, when we think of Morris returning to the Seattle Sounders in 2019, do we really know what to expect? After all, two years have passed since the extremely talented academy product scored with any sort of consistency, and the looming question of whether he’s a forward or a winger further complicates his standing with the team. In some ways he is a new signing and in others he is familiar to the coaches and squad.
Up to this point with the Sounders, Morris has played up top more than he’s played out wide. This was especially true in the 2016 regular season, where he made 24 starts as a central forward and only eight starts on the wing. Looking at that regular season alone, Morris was far more effective when he played central forward, bagging 11 of 12 goals from that position and helping the team to 12 wins. When Morris started out wide, the team posted a paltry 1-6-1 record.
Taken alone, those numbers could indicate a tough 2019 season for Morris as he’ll start the year firmly behind Raul Ruidiaz on the striker depth chart. Since the Sounders typically only play with one striker in their 4-2-3-1 system, Morris’s best chance for minutes may come on the wing. Fortunately for both him and the team, the larger context surrounding the 2016 season shows his challenges playing in a wide position may have stemmed more from external circumstance than personal ability.
Each of Morris’s eight regular season starts as a wide player in 2016 came before the midseason acquisition of Lodeiro and promotion of Brian Schmetzer. But in the playoffs, when Morris did get the chance to start out wide with Lodeiro on the field and Schmetzer on the touchline, the USMNT player notched two goals and an assist en route to an MLS Cup.
Much of Morris’s success as a wide player in the 2016 playoffs stemmed from Lodeiro’s ability to unlock the then rookie’s pace down the wing as well as the team’s improved cohesiveness in Schmetzer’s 4-2-3-1 compared to Sigi Schmid’s 4-3-3. Those two factors can be replicated in 2019, but another, subtler adjustment Schmetzer made to Morris’s position could prove harder to recreate.
Under Schmid, Morris started seven matches on the right and one match on the left, while in his two active years under Schmetzer, Morris started one match on the right and eight matches on the left. Both Morris and the team fared better when he started on the left. That’s likely because when Morris lines-up on the left, he can cut in and shoot from his much-preferred right foot, whereas when he lines-up on the right, he has to cut in and shoot from his left. Starting on the left could hurt Morris’s crossing ability, but since the Sounders outside backs handle more of the crossing duties than their outside mids, and since Morris gets paid to shoot more than to cross, the con of less crossing matters less than the pro of better shooting.
The reason playing Morris on the left could be harder to replicate in 2019 is that Victor Rodriguez also likes to start on his left and cut in on his right to shoot. For the Sounders to get their most talented 11 on the field at once, one of those two players likely needs to switch to starting on the right. That, or Schmetzer could slide Rodriguez to the middle and Lodeiro to the right. Either way, should Morris play on the left, finding the best midfield to compliment his style of play could take time.
Regardless of Morris’s position, it is his ability (or inability) to finish chances that will determine the success of his upcoming season. Thanks to his blazing speed and underrated instincts in the box, Morris posted a solid expected goals per 96 minutes rate in both of his MLS seasons (0.42 in ‘16 and 0.30 in ‘17). The key difference between his 2016 rookie-of-the-year campaign and his underwhelming sophomore campaign is that he converted those expected goals to actual goals at a much higher rate.
In 2016, according to American Soccer Analysis, Jordan Morris averaged -.03 goals minus expected goals per 96 minutes, meaning he scored at a rate almost exactly proportional to his chances on goal. In 2017, Morris averaged -.15 g-xg/96 — seventh worst of any MLS player with more than 1,000 minutes on the season. If Morris had played the same number of minutes and converted at the same rate in 2017 as he did in 2016, he would have had four or five more goals on the season.
Still, making those adjustments leaves Morris three or four goals short of his 2016 mark, a worrying regression. Here, again, context becomes important. Like most strikers in the world, Morris tends to score in bunches. In 2016, he had two streaks of scoring four goals in four matches, while also going goalless for four or more straight matches three times. For players who make a living by scoring, especially young ones, rhythm is everything. As Morris grinded his way through the first half of the season with nagging hamstring and ankle injuries, he lost that rhythm.
Keeping the importance of rhythm and form in mind, fans shouldn’t expect Morris to play like a TAM player in his first matches back this season. Beyond the usual amount of time it takes athletes to shake off the rust and trust their bodies after long-term injuries, he’ll need to find his role on a team that boasts more talent than it did 2016 and 2017.
The good news is Morris has shown positional flexibility as well as an ability to impact games off the bench. Whether he’s stretching the field as a winger or a striker, his pace will force opposing back lines to think twice before stepping up to squeeze Seattle into the tight middle block that flummoxed them at times in 2018. With both him and Ruidiaz, the Sounders will pose a consistent threat of getting in behind backlines, making the attack more directly goal dangerous while also opening new space for creative playmakers such as Lodeiro, Rodriguez, and Shipp to pull the strings.
Moreover, Morris is an underrated poacher in the box. Many of his goals for the Sounders and USMNT have come from smashing home loose balls in the penalty area. The ability to line the young American up with Ruidiaz and Bruin will give the Sounders a lethal late match strike-force if they’re down a goal and need to go full pound-the-ball-into-the-box-and-see-what-happens mode.
In short, the mere threat of Morris will force teams to change the way they the defend the Sounders.