It’s hardly breaking news to observe that Jordan Morris has clearly flipped some sort of switch. I’m sure I’ve pointed it out multiple times in this space over the last year or so. I claim no credit for realizing that he’s moved into something of a newfound gear since returning last July from the Gold Cup with the United States national team.
Somehow, he keeps managing to show us something new.
One such display came on Sunday when he was utterly unplayable against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Morris finished the match with a goal and an assist, but more than that, he seemed to be a danger every time he had the ball. Just look at this video that compiles most of his best moments from the 3-0 win that put the Sounders through to the Knockout Round of the MLS is Back Tournament.
The video is more than two minutes long and shows Morris’ involvement in no fewer than nine reasonably good scoring chances. Among the plays it doesn’t include is the assist he had on Raúl Ruidíaz’s goal off the corner.
What’s most exciting is that he displays a full arsenal of weapons and the kind of confidence superstars exude. He beats his defender for pace on balls over the top; outmuscles them to 50/50 balls; shows spacial awareness of his teammates with both runs and passes; is willing to shoot from different angles and with either foot; is confident enough to both dribble out of trouble and play 1-2s; was dangerous on counters, set pieces and with a set defense in front of him; and even puts in an honest effort on defense and helps out his teammates with hold-up play. There were even shades of the famed Oba-Deuce partnership in some of the exchanges he had with Ruidíaz.
Opta credited Morris with 42 touches in 79 minutes. Of those, 16 were some sort of attacking movement — either a shot, a dribble, or a pass into the box. On a day like this, at least, there really isn’t much more you can reasonably ask from him.
The caveat in this one is that the Whitecaps simply looked overmatched, not just by Morris but by the entire team. Morris isn’t yet at the point where he can be this effective against any MLS opponent, although he is getting closer to that sort of superstar metric. Over his last 25 MLS appearances — including playoffs — he now has 12 goals and nine assists. If he can keep that up over a 34-game season, we’d being looking at something like 16 goals and 12 assists.
There have been times — even relatively recently — when his ceiling has been believed to be relatively low. Given his progression over the past year, it might just be best to enjoy the ride and just see what heights he can reach.
New arrow in the quiver
Handwalla Bwana’s rise has not been nearly as meteoric as Morris’, but I think we can say he’s made some real strides over the course of this tournament and Sunday’s performance was probably the most complete of his MLS career.
Bwana, up until now, has been known mostly for his dribbling ability and willingness to attack defenders 1-v-1 when isolated on the wing. In this tournament, though, he’s shown an improved ability to find space without the ball.
In the previous game, it was his run that allowed him to finish off Morris’ pass. In this one, we saw a similar awareness on a goal that was ultimately ruled out for offside.
Handwalla Bwana had one of his most complete performances of his MLS career on Sunday. He had three shots, two key passes, was solid defensively. Also showed consistently good movement, especially on the goal he had that was was (correctly) ruled offside. pic.twitter.com/THSNS4IErN— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) July 20, 2020
I love how he just casually moves around the box, making himself available, giving himself just enough separation in case someone is able to find him.
Even more encouraging was that Bwana was dangerous throughout the match. Bwana now has compiled an xG of 1.71 in three MLS is Back appearances, the fifth highest total of the tournament according to American Soccer Analysis. The list of players ahead of him are a mix of rising stars and players likely to fetch millions in transfer fees.
This is still a very small sample size, but there’s now good reason to believe Bwana can develop into a reliable attacking option off the bench and put himself in position for spot starts. That’s a significant tool for Brian Schmetzer to have at his disposal.
Nouhou’s job to lose
Coming into the season, no starting position was more wide open than left back. The expectation was that Joevin Jones and Nouhou would compete for the spot and through the first four competitive matches, they split time.
By the time the Sounders returned from the coronavirus-induced break, Nouhou had seemingly inched ahead and he started the first game against the Earthquakes. After Jones suffered an injury in that one, Nouhou has now started all three of the matches.
Nouhou was particularly effective against the Whitecaps, filling up the stat sheet with three tackles, two interceptions and four clearances while providing a consistent offensive threat when he joined the attack. The trademark acrobatics are still there, but he’s now supplementing his game with the sort of reliability that Schmetzer craves. The only time I found myself frustrated with him was when he collected a ball about 50 yards out and had a chance to chip Whitecaps goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau and all too sensibly chose to keep possession.
I don’t know how far away Jones is from returning, but I suspect the starting spot is now Nouhou’s to lose.