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Let’s talk about the Jordan Morris narratives

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The Sounders star has sparked quite the conversation surrounding his stellar play.

Kayla Mehring / Sounder at Heart

Jordan Morris has been one of the most polarizing players in the US men’s national team pool almost ever since he came onto the scene.

Even before his professional days, Morris rubbed many USMNT fans the wrong way when he chose to play college soccer at Stanford rather than turn pro right away. Despite that choice, he became the first college player in about two decades to be called into the senior national team. After three seasons at Stanford, he took even more criticism for electing to sign with the Seattle Sounders as a Homegrown Player rather than make a move overseas, where he had generated a fair amount of interest and had even gone on trial with Bundesliga club Werder Bremen.

The logic essentially boils down to: If Morris is considered one of the top young talents that our national team is going to lean on, he needs to be pushing himself out of his comfort zone and testing himself at the highest level, which isn’t going to come in MLS. This sentiment has been expressed so regularly from USMNT fans, and even former manager Jurgen Klinnsman, that it practically became conventional wisdom when Jermaine Jones publicly criticized Morris for staying in Seattle because he had just gotten a new dog (which was actually not the reason he stayed in Seattle, but that’s neither here nor there). “Jordan Morris stayed for his dog” has basically become a rallying cry for this segment of the USMNT fan base in the years since.

This narrative has persisted throughout every phase of his entire career, regardless of what he did on the field at the club or international level. Any accomplishment he managed in MLS — whether it was his Rookie of the Year in 2016, his Comeback Player of the Year last year or MLS Cup titles he won in 2016 and 2019 — was written off as irrelevant to his USMNT stock because it took place in MLS.

But is the idea that Morris has unquestionably hindered his potential international development by staying in MLS supported by the facts? It seems to me that there’s only one way to try and answer that question: By looking at how Morris has actually performed on the field when he’s been called up.

For however black and white people want to make this issue, it’s impossible to truly know what impact staying in MLS has had on his development compared to what would have happened if he had signed with Werder Bremen or somewhere else overseas. Here’s what we do know: Since returning from the torn ACL that cost him the entire 2018 season, Morris has balled out for the USMNT.

He’s been one of our best attacking players by any measure you want to use and by the eye test. In 2019, Morris put up five goals and six assists in 779 minutes for the USMNT, and he did so using the strides he displayed on the field for Seattle. Personally, just as a fan of the sport, I’ve been fascinated watching Morris’ progression from a physically gifted, but technically raw attacking prospect with a questionable left-foot, into a multi-faceted, stat sheet-stuffing, game-breaking winger. MLSsoccer.com’s Matt Doyle gives a great breakdown of this progression here:

As Matt points out, if anything, Morris has developed a skillset that is actually much more well-rounded than anyone projected for him coming out of Stanford. In college, Morris was deployed most frequently in a two-striker set, and said earlier in his career that he saw himself more as a forward. But with the arrival of Raul Ruidíaz, he was shifted to the wing full time, where he’s become a full-on game-wrecker and one of the most complete attackers in MLS. This was on full display in Seattle’s 7-1 demolition of the San Jose Earthquakes, where Morris scored the opening goal and dished out three assists. This pass is a good illustration of the types of tricks Morris has added to his game that we simply wouldn’t have seen from him when he first went pro.

After this match, talk of Morris’ domination in the game — outside Seattle, at least — predictably devolved into USMNT fans rehashing their same old narratives: The performance is meaningless because a.) It came against the Earthquakes and b.) He plays in MLS to begin with, and therefore anything he does in the league should be discounted off the top.

But the idea that Morris’ progression can be discounted because of where he’s playing his club soccer does not hold up when you look at how he’s actually performed for the USMNT, which should be the most important thing we’re looking at in all of this.

Based on how he played for the USMNT last year, I don’t see any way around this, which is why I find it frustrating to see these narratives surface again and again, being treated by many as if they’re unquestioned gospel. That’s why I posted this thread in the aftermath of the Quakes game in response to these rehashed sentiments. The thread set Soccer Twitter on fire, and I received a ton of pushback. I was called a lot of names and attacked personally. You can read the full thread below.

Now, for all the vitriol I received for this that had nothing to do with the actual point I was trying to make, I did receive some responses that I think made some fair points. So, I’d like to start by acknowledging those, because I’m a reasonable guy and if people make good-faith points in the spirit of an actual discussion, I can admit it.

First off, in general, I’ll agree that I probably came in a little too hot, both in my overall tone and on a couple of broader points. To say that it is “statistically proven” that Morris should be a starter based on his performance for the Yanks last year was probably a stretch, at least where we stand right now. The reality is, while 779 minutes is a decent sample size that shouldn’t be discounted, he also hasn’t done it long enough for me to start chest-thumping like this. He needs to do it for a longer period of time and show the new facets of his game can translate consistently against our highest-level opponents, and that was fair game for people to point out.

Second, a lot of people pointed out that it doesn’t really make sense to compare Morris’ stats to Weston McKennie, a box-to-box midfielder. Point taken. The thing I’ll say on that is the reason I included McKennie is because his 5-goal, 2-assist output made him one of the top three most productive attacking players on the team in 2019, along with Morris and Pulisic. You can debate whether or not a box-to-box mid having that distinction is a good or bad thing, but that’s just the reality of the situation. However, if I could do it again, I would just leave McKennie out of this, because I think his inclusion wound up detracting from my larger point, which was just that Morris played very well for the USMNT last year.

As I noted in the thread, I realize that people will question my objectivity as someone who has been around the team as much as I have. That might be true as well, to an extent. I’ve been accused of being a homer in the past, and I used to make a big show of talking about how I cover the team objectively because I’m actually from New Mexico and didn’t grow up a Sounders fan, and am not really a Sounders fan, etc. However, as the years have gone by and my role has evolved into less of a traditional reporter, both for the league and the team itself, I care less about acting like I don’t root for the team’s success, at least to some degree. It would be disingenuous of me to pretend otherwise, especially as someone who frequently runs the team’s play-by-play Twitter account on match days where I’m essentially tweeting like the most irrational super-fan possible.

However, I also think that my affiliation with the team makes me plenty qualified to assess Morris’s development. I’ve watched every minute of every game Morris has ever played professionally and for the USMNT. I’m also a USMNT fan before anything else, and I just want the best players possible starting and put in positions to make the biggest impact. If I didn’t honestly think Morris was one of those guys right now, I wouldn’t be saying he was just to say it because he plays for the Sounders. You can believe me or not on that.

Now, to the erroneous points, of which there were many:

I got tons of responses suggesting that I was trying to use goals and assists to prove that Morris is better than Christian Pulisic. To be clear, I’m not arguing, nor have I ever argued, that Morris is a better player than Christian Pulisic. I’m as big a Pulisic fan as anybody. I think he’s probably already the best player we’ve ever had. What he did down the stretch for Chelsea in the English Premier League last season was nothing short of phenomenal.

Again, the point of citing these numbers was not to say they prove that Morris is a better player than anybody else, but rather just to illustrate that Morris had a very good and productive year for the USMNT in 2019, while also playing his club soccer in MLS. Perhaps I could have made that more clear, but nowhere did I assert that I believe Morris to be the superior player. I don’t believe that.

Plenty more people tried to discount Morris’ stats from 2019 by pointing out that three of his goals came in a 7-0 blowout against Cuba. I just don’t buy this at all.

I understand the sentiment behind stat-padding against a weak opponent, but you can only play the teams in front of you. Dominating a weak opponent is what you’re supposed to do, and I don’t think you can just go through the list of teams we played and start picking out which goals count and which goals don’t. What do you want him to do? Not score against Cuba because they don’t meet the artificial criteria that people have created for what opponents matter? If Morris hadn’t performed well against Cuba, the same people calling these goals meaningless would be all over him. It seems to me that this is just moving the goalposts to create a situation where you’re just going to criticize him either way, no matter what he does, because you disagree with his decision on where he plays his club soccer. No other player in the pool is held to a standard like that.

Pulisic also scored in the game against Cuba, and has scored against Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Bolivia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, none of which would be described as powerhouses. Do those goals count for him because he plays in Europe, or do they not count either? You can say that you don’t put stock into Concacaf stats at all, I guess, but the reality is these are the only games that we have to go off of and at the end of the day, all these numbers come from players that were playing against the same competition.

If Morris only had one good game against Cuba and was invisible for the rest of them, I could see the point a little bit more, but that wasn’t the case. Over the course of his full time on the field, he was unquestionably one of our best attacking players, the Cuba hat trick notwithstanding. However much weight you put in that based on the competition we play in Concacaf is up to you, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

USMNT career stats for top attackers in pool

Player Goals Assists Minutes GA/90
Player Goals Assists Minutes GA/90
Jordan Morris 10 8 1763 0.92
Christian Pulisic 14 9 2268 0.91
Jozy Altidore 42 14 7965 0.63
Josh Sargent 5 0 724 0.62
Gyasi Zardes 12 9 3530 0.54
Tyler Boyd 2 1 507 0.53
Tim Weah 1 1 512 0.35
Source: U.S. Soccer media guide

Plenty of people said that we have clear-cut better options at the position. Who?

I could do a name-by-name comparison, but I’m not going to do that, because I just really don’t think that there’s anyone you could name who has definitively proven themselves to be a better idea. The point is, it’s not like the US has a surplus of great options right now, certainly not anyone who has outperformed Morris. If you think you have one, name them. I’m all ears. The reality is that based on career USMNT production, no one is putting up better numbers than Morris (not even Pulisic).

If someone does step up, outperforms Morris and wins the job based on their play on the field, I would have no problem admitting it. Like I said earlier, I just want the team to improve and see the best players possible getting the majority of the caps and minutes. If that’s Morris, great. If it’s not, let the best man win.

But discounting Morris’ place in that discussion purely because he plays in MLS is self-defeating. Everyone knows how badly we could use a dynamic winger. If Morris is that guy when he gets called in, it shouldn’t matter whether he’s playing his club soccer in the EPL or the USL. I really couldn’t care less where Morris, or any other player for that matter, is playing their club soccer as long as they’re getting the job done when they’re getting their caps.

I understand the desire to see Morris test himself at a higher level. Believe it or not, I actually would really like to see him go to Europe, not because I think it automatically means he’ll be a better player for the USMNT, but just out of curiosity to see what would happen and how he would do. I think he’s proven all he can in MLS, winning MLS Cup twice and shredding the league to bits so far in 2020.

And for what it’s worth, I think he probably will go at some point. He’s 25 and recently signed a contract extension, but there’s no rule against going later in your 20s, and I think there will still be plenty of interest based on how he’s playing right now. It’s entirely possible that he comes to the conclusion himself that he’s maxed out his potential here and wants to see what he can do elsewhere. I would welcome that.

I also understand the cynicism that permeates the USMNT fanbase. Trust me, I’ve fallen into a lot of that myself. The program hasn’t given us much reason for hope or optimism in recent years.

But that doesn’t mean we should dissuade ourselves from acknowledging these beacons of hope when they’re out there. The way Morris has played in his most recent call-ups should be exciting, not torn down. He’s playing exactly like a player that the US needs and I believe can continue to make a big impact for the team. He’s showing that you can develop in MLS and also excel on the international level, which is a good thing for the league and, more importantly, for the game in this country as a whole.

Instead of just acknowledging what looks to be increasingly clear (that the US seems to have a very good, international-caliber starting winger on our hands!), we still have people arguing adamantly that Morris capped his developmental ceiling by staying in MLS, even in the face of plenty of evidence that didn’t turn out to be the case. Those arguing this have created an impossible standard, where they levy the same criticisms without allowing for the possibility that he can prove his worth through his play on the field. The truth is, no one knows what impact his decision to stay in Seattle had on his development either way, and these decisions come down to the individual, rather than some sort of all-encompassing criteria that applies to every player equally.

We’ll see what happens going forward. Maybe I’m ultimately proven wrong and Morris falls off a cliff in his future caps. If he does, I’m sure there will be plenty of chest-thumping among USMNT euro snobs about it. Either way, this is the last time I’ll be weighing in on the topic. It wasn’t worth cratering my mentions over (and I’m not on Twitter to intentionally try and piss anyone off, about soccer, at least). But as long as he’s producing when he’s called up, people need to know that continuing to bring up his dog doesn’t make them smarter than anyone else. It just makes them a cynic that isn’t acknowledging the reality of what’s in front of all of us. These narratives are old. They’re boring. They’re tired.

They need to die.