SEATTLE — Some narratives are just so obvious that you can’t help but write about them. When a local-kid-turned-good-then-kinda-bad-then-seriously-hurt scores a brace in his first game at home in about 18 months, that definitely qualifies.
But the story of Jordan Morris’ star performance wasn’t just about a player who suffered a season-ending knee injury and was playing his first competitive game in more than a year. This was also the story of a player whose star power had diminished greatly over the past couple years.
It seems like a lifetime ago now, but it was as recently as early 2017 that Morris was being hailed as the Next Great American Hope. No American soccer player’s decision about where to start his professional career has been covered quite like Morris’ either before or after he spurned the Bundesliga’s Werder Bremen for his hometown Sounders. Battle lines were drawn between fans who wanted him in MLS and those who thought he needed to test himself in Europe.
Against that backdrop, his Rookie of the Year performance in 2016 — and maybe even more his goal that sent the Sounders to MLS Cup — felt like a vindication of sorts. Sure, Morris may have gone against Jurgen Klinsmann’s wishes, but he also made a decision that was best for him and maybe even best for his longterm development.
We all know what happened in the two years after. Constantly battling injuries in 2017, Morris slumped badly — save for a star turn in that summer’s Gold Cup — and then had his whole 2018 wiped out after he tore his ACL.
Whenever any player misses a whole season, it’s easy to almost forget about them. Even if coaches still see a bright future in Morris — as evidenced by him getting invited to the most recent USMNT training camp as an observer and his five-year contract extension with the Sounders — many observers seemed ready to move on to the Next Big Thing, if not write him off completely.
To be fair, it was hard to blame some of them. Morris hadn’t scored a goal of any kind since Aug. 5, 2017. Sounders fans hadn’t seen him score in person since March 19, 2017 — nearly two years ago.
In the postgame locker room, I asked Morris if he even remembered that goal. He took a solid 10 seconds to think about it before correctly recalling that it had come against the Red Bulls.
“It was a long time ago,” Morris said sheepishly.
Morris clearly spent a lot of that time doing more than simply getting healthy. He also seemed to study the game and work on his own weak spots. It was similar to the way Luke Skywalker showed up in “Return of the Jedi” as a full-fledged master, clearly matured from the guy who got his hand chopped off in “Empire Strikes Back.”
The first goal came when he timed his run perfectly and expertly filled in space vacated by the right back. That he may have been trying to hit Raúl Ruidíaz with a cross rather than shoot only strengthens the case for improved tactical awareness.
The second goal featured Morris confidently calling for the ball on the opposite wing, calmly setting himself and hitting his shot first time with his left foot. It’s not exactly an uncommon sequence for a goal, but it’s probably the first one Morris has scored quite like that.
Maybe even as impressive as those goals were the 50-yard switch he hit from the defensive end that started a counter-attack.
I don’t know that Morris’ first-ever home brace will propel him to a breakout season. What I do know is that this version of Jordan Morris feels quite a bit different than the one we saw struggling to find himself in 2017. Hurt or not, Morris never looked particularly confident that year and was often limited to relying on his physical talents, rather than his soccer skills. This version seemed to have a better sense of where he needed to be and where his teammates wanted to go.
The goals made for an easy narrative, but it was his overall play that should give us hope he can still fulfill his destiny.
The Roldan-Svensson pairing
There wasn’t a lot of to complain about following a 4-1 victory, but Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer found a few nits to pick in his postgame presser. The biggest was in response to what was phrased as a bit of softball question when someone asked about the importance of the defensive midfield pairing of Gustav Svensson and Cristian Roldan in allowing the more offensive players to “express” themselves. Rather than offer platitudes, Schmetzer said this:
“At 3-1, any two-goal lead is kinda tricky,” he said. “At the beginning of the second half, we weren’t pleased with some of the play by the guys who are supposed to take care of the ball and establish tempo. They are obviously talented players, but I think it took them awhile to get a hold of the game in the fashion we wanted them to. We will make sure we address that and make sure it gets corrected.”
Being completely honest, I didn’t really see the problem on first viewing. Digging in a little bit, I might have a better understanding. Through the first 20 minutes of the second half, Svensson and Roldan combined for just one defensive action. They also combined for just 16 passes during that time, with Roldan making just five total touches (all complete passes, for what it’s worth). That 20-minute period also happened to be one of the few chunks of the game where FC Cincinnati had the advantage in “game flow.”
When Osvaldo Alonso was patrolling the defensive midfield, he was almost always one of the most heavily used players on the field. Although Roldan and Svensson combined for well over 200 touches in the game, that 20-minute chunk was their least active.
As Schmetzer alluded to, this all has to be judged in the context of a two-goal lead. Svensson and Roldan never looked anything like over-run or over-matched. Each of them had plenty of good moments and I think overall they should give us reason for optimism. But I’ll take this as a show of coaching maturity that Schmetzer was willing to call out a couple of his veteran leaders on an otherwise positive night.
Something else I’ll admit to somewhat missing on the live viewing was what allowed the Sounders to be so effective attacking down the left side. My initial impression was that Victor Rodriguez was just sort of tearing apart Alvas Powell. I wasn’t wrong, mind you, but it was a bit more nuanced than that.
A more accurate statement would be the Sounders attacked the space you’d EXPECT Alvas Powell to be. The thing was, Powell just wasn’t there very often.
For reasons that I don’t think any of us will fully understand, Powell was constantly caught far upfield. A lot of the Sounders’ best chances came when Powell was so far out of the play that he was a complete nonfactor. To illustrate my point, just look at this play that starts in the Sounders’ end and should have resulted in a goal. Powell never shows up in the frame.
Great buildup from the Sounders. Nico fires it over, though. Still 3-1 Seattle. pic.twitter.com/aYpOMjS1Cq— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) March 3, 2019
By the end of the game, the Sounders had taken 16 shots from inside the penalty area. All but two of those came on the left side and those other two — Kelvin Leerdam’s goal and Morris’ second — came from passes on the left side.
At various points in the game, it seemed like there was just a constant stream of attacking play flowing through the right side of the Cincinnati defense. A good deal of the credit for that should go to Rodriguez and Brad Smith, who were only too happy to make Powell pay for his forays into the attack. There was a lot to like in their combination play, too.
If there’s one point of caution, though, it’s that the Sounders probably can’t expect future opponents to leave quite that much space. Apparently Cincinnati was hoping to clog the middle and force play wide and the Sounders attack will likely force other teams to make similar choices, albeit likely not with so much disregard for their fullbacks’ position. Still, it was good to see them take advantage like they did.
Seriously how good is Raúl Ruidíaz?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m simply amazed at how little hype seems to be surrounding Ruidíaz. He showed again why he might just be the most lethal open-play attacker in MLS on Saturday.
Ruidíaz “only” had three shots and just three other touches in or around the penalty area. The result? A goal, two more shots on goal and two key passes. Translated, that’s five scoring chances created on six touches. Not a bad rate!
The Peruvian has now scored in six straight Sounders games — including playoffs — and has 14 goals in 17 appearances, none of which have come from the penalty spot. His scoring rate currently sits at .92 goals per 90 minutes. The only player with a better career scoring rate in MLS is Josef Martinez (.96), and even he’s not close if you discount penalties.
Ruidíaz’s goal in this one was a great illustration of the type of problems he poses for defenders. He collected the ball on the break, controlled it with a magnetic touch and then pushed it into just enough space to squeeze off a shot that the goalkeeper couldn’t handle.
The shot that really impressed me, though, was one he had a few minutes later and was saved. Seeing Rodriguez make a move toward the endline, Ruidíaz faded back toward the penalty spot. Despite his momentum taking him away from the goal, Ruidíaz was able to get enough power on his outside-of-the-boot redirection that he nearly beat the goalkeeper.
Just another example of how good Victor Rodriguez was last night. Raul Ruidiaz could've (should've?) had 2 goals in 2 minutes last night. pic.twitter.com/34NTrsrm1U— mark kastner (@mkstnr) March 4, 2019
When he wasn’t making defenders look silly with his touches, he was dragging them out of position with clever runs. He also drew plaudits from Schmetzer from fulfilling his defensive assignment on a late-game corner when the game had already been decided.
I don’t know if Ruidíaz is the best striker in MLS, but it’s hard to imagine a player who would do more to help this squad than him.
Editor’s note: The quote, stat and gif elements of this column are going to be moved to the recap/talking points.