Jordan Morris rightfully named top MLS Rookie of the Year after wildly successful first year

Jordan Morris is the 2016 AT&T MLS Rookie of the Year. In the end, it wasn’t much of a contest.

Morris’ season has few equals in terms of rookie forwards in the league’s history. Among all rookies since 1996, only Canadian Cyle Larin scored more than Morris’ 12 goals in 2016, and no American has done better. What’s more, half of those were match-winners — an MLS rookie record — and Morris did it all on a team in flux and contributed to the most stirring midseason turnaround in league history.

The sternest competition to Morris’ claim came from the opposite end of the country. Alongside Morris in the final voting were NYCFC winger Jack Harrison and Philadelphia Union right back Keegan Rosenberry. As good as Harrison’s season was, the vote in the end was between Rosenberry and Morris.

The arguments for Rosenberry came down to his consistently quality performances. He set an unbeatable rookie record by playing every minute of every game this year, contributing his talents along the flank to a Union defense that helped put them into the playoffs. His position, too, deserves its place in the reckoning. Fullbacks in particular this good are hard to find, and Rosenberry might’ve stamped his place in the top five in all of MLS at the position.

So why, then, choose Morris over Rosenberry?

For one, let’s dispel the notion that a vote for Morris was a vote for the award-as-popularity contest. Some corners of the internet have claimed Morris’ outsize profile, national team prospects and glamour position indicate the vote would’ve gone to him regardless of the side-by-side comparison between the two. Rosenberry, after all, plays on a smaller market team with arguably less scrutiny and less national attention. Fullbacks naturally get less publicity than forwards, after all.

But this belies the history of the award. It’s been handed out to 20 rookies in MLS history, only five of whom were forwards. Defenders, on the other hand, won it eight times, a sure sign that it’s easier in MLS for a defender to slide into the starting lineup in his first year and make an impact than at any other position. There’s a reason for that.

And then there’s the not-so-small matter of scoring goals versus stopping them. While it’s true that defenders are often overlooked in the same way offensive linemen are in football, scoring a goal is more difficult than stopping a goal from being scored. Morris’ award would be one thing if he’d had a middling season while Rosenberry played week-in, week-out.

Morris did not have a middling season. He tied for the highest goalscoring output by a U.S.-born player this year, rookie or not. So that, as they say, is that.

A deeper dive into Morris’ season reveals a hearty dose of maturation as well. If a hallmark of all Rookie of the Year winners involves a steady progression from the first game to their most recent, then Morris certainly fits the bill.

Morris started the year as a fill-in on the right flank in a 4-3-3, moved up top as a center forward in the same formation, occupied the lone striker position in a 4-2-3-1 and finally moved to the left flank in the same formation to make room for an in-form Nelson Valdez. Morris clearly has a favored position. The vast majority of his goals have come as a striker. But the fact that he’s been good in limited time out wide, and that he’s steadily gotten better in those roles, indicates a wider progression that puts him in good stead for the future.

There’s also the matter of his brimming confidence. In Morris’ first few months in the league, he was reticent to take on defenders in space and often checked back and deferred to his teammates on breaks. Somewhere in the middle of the year, the light flicked on and Morris started running heads-up on retreating defenders with his blitzkrieg speed. His newfound fearlessness led to five goals in a span of seven games in August and September in the midst of Seattle’s most critical winning stretch of the year.

Morris still has some growing to do, but there’s little question he was the best rookie in MLS in 2016. Perhaps some award races will come down to the wire this season. But this one didn’t.

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