Why the next U.S. Soccer Star will come from NCAA?July 28, 2015
In the year since the 2014 World Cup, Jürgen Klinsmann and the United States national team have experienced peaks and valleys. Some of the rocky patches included Landon Donovan’s messy farewell last October, prized project Julian Green essentially lost a season at Hamburg, and the team’s long stretch of conceding goals at the ends of matches.
The most intriguing and perplexing story, however, has been the emergence of Stanford University’s Jordan Morris into the team. Last August he surprised many observers when he became the first college player since Chris Albright in 1999 to earn a callup to the national team. It marked a stunning rise for Morris who in just 2013 was cut from the U.S. U-20 World Cup team by Tab Ramos.
“When I got cut, I was definitely disappointed but it added fuel to my fire that I really wanted to get back there,” Morris recalled. “Since then, it’s always been a goal to play on the national team at whatever age. That moment of being cut was hard, but it gave me fuel to get back.”
What is particularly remarkable is how quickly Morris got back into the international arena, the events that brought him there, and his performances which have kept him there. He caught Klinsmann’s eye earlier in 2014 when the national team held part of its pre-World Cup camps at Stanford and Morris stood out during scrimmages against the Cardinal’s men’s team.
In November Morris earned his first cap in a friendly against Ireland, but many figured that he would fall out of the national team picture when he announced he would return to school for his junior season in January. That was not the case. In fact, Klinsmann had the 20-year-old Seattle-area native play even more, and ahead of established veterans on the team.
“Now for him going forward, it’s about staying consistent at Stanford and calculating his path and his jump into the professional world sooner or later to become a consistent element in our Olympic team that strives toward Rio de Janeiro in 2016,” Klinsmann said in April in an interview on U.S. Soccer’s website. “I think that Jordan Morris has the talent and the potential. I think what he needs to learn now is to pick up a higher rhythm to go to the highest level possible and become consistent. He has the talent to break through, but it’s easier to do that in one game than it is to do in 40, 50, 60 games in one year.”
Morris, of course, delivered. In April, he scored the opening goal in the U.S. team’s latest installment of yet another dos a cero win over Mexico at the Alamo Dome. Just days later, he scored again in a 3-0 win over Mexico while playing in a friendly for the U.S. U-23 Olympic team. He is expected to be an integral part of the U-23 team’s quest to qualify and succeed at the 2016 Games.
The intrigue surrounding Morris continued to grow this past month when Klinsmann named him to the roster for high-profile friendlies against Holland and Germany. Against Holland in Amsterdam, Morris entered in the 80th minute with the U.S. team trailing 3-2. His speed tilted the advantage to the Americans in the final minutes and he managed to deliver the game-winning assist in the 90th minute on Bobby Wood’s goal. On Wednesday against the Germans, he again entered late and had a big impact. His clever dummy on a Brad Evans pass gave Wood just enough time to deliver the late winner.
The questions about his immediate future have only intensified. Should Morris elect to stay at Stanford all four seasons, he won’t turn professional until 2017—after the U.S. team has likely begun its final round of World Cup qualifying. At this point, however, he is happy with his decision to stay – at least for one more year.
“Whenever you make a big decision, you always kind of think ‘What if?’” Morris said in April. “What you really have to try to do is push that ‘what if?’ out of your mind because I trust that I made the right decision for me. I really love it here at Stanford. I’m still learning and growing as a player. For me, what made me the happiest was staying another year. It’s really cool to come back to Stanford because so many people here have done so many cool things. It’s exciting to be part of that tradition.”
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THERE ONCE WAS A TIME when college players were somewhat common on the U.S. national team. In the days before Major League Soccer, it happened with regularity. While the U.S. team has improved since then, the college players of that era who made the jump still had the same level of transition to the full international game.
The last college player to score for the United States internationally before Morris was Mike Sorber in 1992. Now an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Union, Sorber went on to play for the U.S. team at the 1994 World Cup. He understands as well as anyone that Morris will have difficult choices in the near future.
“It’s completely different now,” Sorber said. “There wasn’t professional soccer here back then. He at least has options today. You’re talking about a totally different period of time where that was the only time where you’re going to go from college to playing in a World Cup. That will never be done again. This kid is obviously at a great school. He has decisions to make. He values the Stanford education. You can respect that decision, while at the same time knowing you only get one career. To play well consistently for the national team, you need to be a pro.”
“It’s a big challenge because you’re talking about going from a level where the game is completely different to the highest level,” Sorber added. “It’s a sink or swim situation. You are either smart enough, you figure it out and you do it or you’re not good enough and you don’t figure it out and you don’t make it. It’s a pretty simple process.”
While Sorber went on to play in World Cups, there are players who tasted international success initially in college but found it difficult to remain at that level.
Dante Washington was a forward at Radford University when he first was capped. He scored in his debut with the U.S. national team at age 20 in a friendly against Mexico. While he went on to have a successful MLS career with 52 goals for both Dallas and Columbus, his national team career finished with just six caps and two goals.
“It’s going to be very hard for him,” Washington said of Morris. “It’s almost a blessing and a curse for him at the same time. He makes history and he scores but at the same time there is going to be a lot expected of him. The difficult part is now how you keep that up. I hope that people keep expectations in check and don’t anoint him as the next great American striker. Not saying he can’t do it but just because you have some early success doesn’t necessarily mean that is what is going to happen in the future. I scored in back to back games starting with my debut and I only had four games beyond that.”
Morris, of course, will have plenty of options as to where to begin his professional career whenever that will be. He will likely revisit his decision following the upcoming season when offers will no doubt be in hand and more of his Stanford academic requirements will have been passed thereby allowing him to gradually finish his degree should he turn professional.
Still, he is of the opinion that Stanford has been and continues to be a very good place for him to develop. In his freshman year, he was named first team All-Pac 12. In his sophomore season, he was named a NSCAA/Continental Tire First Team All-American despite scoring just four goals.
“I think there is a little bit of a misconception that when you’re in college you’re playing so much less than all these other players,” Morris said. “I think you’re still training really hard. There is a lot of time to work on things on your own. Here we train every single day and we have a spring season. Playing consistently in games is always going to make you a better player. When you are starting to move up from any level, the speed of play is going to be higher. That is something that I need to work on.”
European teams will likely have interest but with Morris not having an E.U. passport, work restrictions, foreign player limits, and other rules will assuredly limit where he can play. The more likely scenario, consequently, is that he lands in MLS with Seattle.
The Sounders own his homegrown rights and Morris acknowledges that his bond with the club is strong and unique. Morris is from the Seattle area and his father has been the team’s physician dating back to its time in the USL.
As a young player, Morris spent a lot of time within the organization, and if he were to join this winter, he would play alongside Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey. Though they are two of the league’s best forwards, they are both into their 30s, thereby ensuring Morris would have to contribute while learning from established veterans.
“It’s a super-special bond,” Morris said of his ties with the Sounders. “I grew up watching the Sounders. I went to their academy. It’s awesome because I would love to play where I grew up and be around my family. There is obviously talk about whether I need to go back there now but despite all that, I have a very special relationship with them. I continue to talk to Sigi every once in a while. He’s been very supportive in this whole process. I am very fortunate to grow up around such an amazing club with amazing people.”