SEATTLE - Jordan Morris cleared the final step to the showroom floor at THE NINETY and the flashbulbs popped and crackled like fireworks.
Flanked by Adrian Hanauer, Garth Lagerwey, Sigi Schmid and Chris Henderson - the Seattle Sounders’ most visible and influential decision makers in matters of player personnel - Morris sheepishly walked to the middle seat of the dais.
Morris, wearing a blazer and a button-down shirt and facing a packed room of about 100 people, settled into his seat and readied to hear the announcement he’d been waiting to hear for years. The kid who’d been in the stands for Seattle’s first ever MLS game in 2009 almost couldn’t believe he was here at all.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Morris said.
It was almost easy to forget Morris is 21, that had never been a professional player before, that he’d spent the last three years playing college soccer. His had been one of the most high-profile stories of the entire MLS offseason. The question of whether he’d join the club he’d grown up watching or hop the pond to Germany lit fire to the wider question of whether MLS could keep its top Homegrowns from leaving before playing close to home.
Morris can’t answer that question for everyone, but he certainly made it clear Seattle is his home base for now.
Morris officially became a milestone signing for Seattle on Thursday. He’s the first Homegrown in MLS history to have been capped by a full national team prior to signing his contract, and it goes without saying that he’s the first to have scored in an international match. Morris will have a fight on his hands for playing time at forward this spring, but Sounders coach Sigi Schmid revealed a brief glimpse of his tactical thought process Thursday that should offer a hint as to how valuable the team sees Morris’s potential contribution.
Schmid has historically utilized a 4-4-2 formation, which provides him the most cover in the midfield and allows Clint Dempsey space to roam. With Morris in the mix, Schmid said Thursday he’s “leaning toward” testing out a three-forward setup, which gives the team options. The prospect of stationing Morris high on the left wing as a sort of inverted inside winger while Obafemi Martins crashes in from the other side and Dempsey drops in to facilitate should give Sounders fans goose bumps.
One of many options, but Morris gives Schmid a new attacking weapon to deploy. And just in the nick of time.
From a negotiation standpoint, there wasn’t much for Lagerwey to do. The Sounders GM and President of Soccer announced in November that Seattle pushed the largest Homegrown contract in MLS history across the table to Morris last spring. But beyond that, the team had to play the waiting game and hope it had done enough to build up goodwill over the years.
“It was the worst contract negotiation I’ve ever conducted,” Lagerwey said, “in the sense that I said, ‘Hey Dr. Morris (Michael Morris, Jordan’s father and the team medical director), here are the rules. This is everything I can pay you. Hold on, let me look in the couch cushions and see if I can find something else. OK, I’ll give you that too.’
“From a business side, there wasn’t much to it. It was just about, ‘Does Jordan want to be here?’”
Since first joining Stanford in the fall of 2013, Morris has been a touchstone for a debate raging through American soccer circles. Should he have gone pro earlier? Should he have gone abroad? Maybe signed with the Sounders out of the Academy?
For Morris though, it was a question of readiness. One year wasn’t enough, and while he contemplated leaving Stanford after his sophomore season, the bitter taste of what he considered a subpar personal year and a one-and-done NCAA tournament appearance forced him back for one more season.
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But three was enough. Morris scored twice in the NCAA title game to guide Stanford to a 4-0 rout of Clemson for the Cardinal’s first ever men’s soccer title in December, and a week later he won the Hermann Trophy shortly before departing for his trial with Werder Bremen.
From Morris’s standpoint, there was nothing left to accomplish.
“Everyone has a different path,” he said. “It’s not about the environment you’re in, it’s about how you, the individual, tries to succeed in that environment. I felt, for me, Stanford was a really fulfilling environment in terms of growing as a player, growing as a person, and I definitely wouldn’t be the player that I am today without having gone to Stanford. That opened me up to opportunities with the national team and things like that.
“I’m going to endorse college soccer, because I think it’s a good learning environment.”
Now to the business of earning a spot on the field. Lagerwey was careful on Thursday not to pump up Morris beyond all expectation. He was working as a lawyer in Washington D.C. when D.C. United signed Freddy Adu as the most hyped teenager in American soccer history, so don’t expect the team to fall over itself just yet.
Still, it was impossible to miss the significance of the day from Seattle’s perspective. Hanauer said several times he’d gotten emotional thinking about the significance of the deal, and several times the crowd of season ticket holders in attendance broke out in applause.
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Three years ago, Henderson brought Morris’s name to Schmid’s attention for the first time. Henderson knew Morris was raw as a U-18 player in the team’s academy, but he had the tenacity and talent to fill out his frame and become a virtual scud missile of an attacker.
That assessment has come to pass, and now Morris is back home again.
“For me, there was just something unique in his game, and something that separated him,” Schmid said. “When we lobbed the first call, its Chris lobbing a call to the U-20 coach at the time, Tab Ramos, and we just said, ‘Take a look at this kid. We don’t know if he’ll make it for you, but just take a look.’ The rest has sort of become history.”