24 Thoughts: MLS Cup preview edition

Jordan Morris's smile will be a lot bigger if he helps his hometown Seattle Sounders to another MLS Cup title over Toronto FC on Sunday. (Omar Vega/Getty)
Jordan Morris's smile will be a lot bigger if he helps his hometown Seattle Sounders to another MLS Cup title over Toronto FC on Sunday. (Omar Vega/Getty)

SEATTLE —Jordan Morris had a major decision to make when the established U.S. men’s national teamer —still the only college player to represent the senior USMNT since Major League Soccer debuted in 1996 — left Stanford University for the pro ranks after leading the Cardinal to the 2015 NCAA title.

Morris could’ve headed to the Bundesliga, the all-world German top flight that has since become the league of choice for America’s very best talent, where a contract with Werder Bremen awaited his signature after a successful trail during the league’s annual winter hiatus. Or, he could ink the richest homegrown player pact in MLS history by staying with his hometown Seattle Sounders, the club he supported, that developed him through its youth ranks, and where his father, Dr. Michael Morris, just so happened to serve as the first team’s head physician.

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We all know which path he chose. And while some suggested in the early part of Morris’s career with the Sounders that perhaps the quick and brawny forward’s development would have been better served by heading to the cut-throat proving grounds overseas, it’s become harder to make that claim these days.

After missing the entire 2018 campaign because of a torn ACL in his right knee, Morris has led the Sounders back to MLS Cup for the third time in the three seasons he’s been healthy.

He compiled 10 goals and seven assists in the regular season, and his hat trick in Seattle’s playoff-opening 4-3 win over FC Dallas set the Rave Green on their way to Sunday’s marquee rematch with Toronto FC, the same foe they met in the 2016 and ‘17 finales. Beyond the numbers, coach Brian Schmetzer has credited Morris’ move from central striker to the left wing — a shift the 25-year-old admits he wasn’t a fan of initially — for much of the team’s success this season, his ability to get behind opposing defenses responsible for opening space that South American attackers Raul Ruidiaz and Nico Lodeiro have been able to exploit.

“I’m completely happy with my decision,” Morris told reporters here earlier this week. “I have zero regrets. The team has obviously been very successful and I feel like I’ve grown as a player here.”

The proof is in his performances at the international level. Morris has been arguably the U.S. squad’s top performer in recent months. He scored the equalizer in a friendly draw with No. 5-ranked Uruguay in September, and will be relied on heavily during must-win CONCACAF Nations League matches against Canada and Cuba over the next 10 days, serving as a counterweight to Chelsea star Christian Pulisic on the opposite flank.

First, though, there’s some business to attend to in Seattle.

“It would be a dream come true to win MLS Cup in my hometown," he said. “This city deserves it.”

24 Thoughts

1. Morris’ new role has given the Sounders an added dimension this year. “I do think that our team is playing to his strengths,” said midfielder Cristian Roldan. “We’re playing a little bit more direct at times, and in years past we certainly didn’t.”

2. It’s easy to see that in addition to his on-field exploits in 2019 — for which Morris was recently named the MLS comeback player of the year — he’s also stepped into more of a leadership role, something that was necessary after the club lost veterans Clint Dempsey and Chad Marshall to retirement over the last two seasons. He wasn’t the only one. Lodeiro, the 30-year-old Uruguayan international, has also stepped up according to Roldan.

3. “Obviously he speaks more English so he’s able to communicate with basically everybody,” Roldan said of the former Boca Juniors maestro. “You see him more vocal, but this guy has always led by example. We’re lucky to have him. He really sets the tone. It influences other players on the field based on how much energy he’s putting in.”

4. There’s been a lot of debate about the new, single-elimination playoff format adopted by MLS this year, but you won’t hear either finalist complaining. Generally, the reviews have been positive. “It’s much different, much more intense,” Roldan said. For the players, that’s been the consensus. But it was interesting to hear Schmetzer suggest Saturday that as a coach, he didn’t mind the extra margin for error that came with the previous home-and home setup in the conferences semis and final.

Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore (middle) kicked a ball for the first time in over a month on Saturday. (Joe Nicholson/USA Today)
Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore (middle) kicked a ball for the first time in over a month on Saturday. (Joe Nicholson/USA Today)

5. For Toronto FC, the big question centers around the health of Jozy Altidore. The veteran forward hadn’t kicked a ball since injuring his quad in the Reds’ final match of the regular season until Saturday, when he participated in shooting drills and 5v2s with alongside his teammates. 

6. “I'm still hopeful that [Sunday] when he gets up he feels great,” TFC coach Greg Vanney said on the eve of the contest. “He hit a couple of balls today, and if there's nothing really wrong with him, then we'll try to try to make use of him as much as possible.

“I'm encouraged us with the steps that he’s been able to take so far.”

7. “It felt good getting out there,” Altidore said, adding that the decision whether he plays or not would probably come down to fitness. “There’s a lot of guys on our team who are fit and who have done the work to this point,” he said. “You don’t want to choose someone who’s not fit.”

8. Still, Altidore believes he can be of use if called upon. “I always feel that I can help the team,” he said, joking that he’s been TFC’s “ultimate cheerleader” over the last month. “It’s a final, man. You die for these games.”

9. Vanney is a straight shooter. But he could also be forgiven if he hasn’t been entirely forthcoming — and I’m not saying he hasn’t been — about Altidore’s prospects for participating in this match. Gamesmanship is par for the course when the stakes mean this much. Vanney is obviously going to want Schmetzer to think that Altidore can play at least a little bit, however realistic that actually is.

10. Either way, the Sounders boss insists his team will be prepared. “We plan for both,” Schmetzer said. “I'm sure he's going to be involved in the game at some point. He's too big of a player. It is a final. I'm sure he'll be involved in some way, shape or form, whether he starts or comes off the bench.

“Even if he doesn't play, they're very dangerous team,” he added. “Obviously they had to go on the road and win a couple playoff games without Jozy, so we'll be prepared for either scenario.”

11. In some ways, what Toronto has accomplished this year is even more impressive than in their back-to-back finals appearances. The Reds headed into this season fully expecting attackers Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez to return, only for both players to leave in January for the clubs in the Middle East.

12. “When you lose players like Seba and Victor then you're going through some sort of a transition —those are two big-time players who have a lot of influence on a team,” Vanney said. The departures forced the club to change how it played, with more focus on wing play than in years past.

13. The arrival of a worthy replacement in Alejandro Pozuelo sure helped. But along the way, role players like Nick DeLeon and Richie Laryea stepped up in major ways.

14. DeLeon, in particular, has been a revelation, scoring huge goals against both former club D.C. United in the first round and at defending champion Atlanta United in the conference semis to get to his first career MLS Cup. “To be here, I’m just sort of embracing the moment,” he said. “Because these moments don’t come around every day.”

15. Time for an MLS Cup prediction. Have to say, this is probably the hardest championship match to handicap since 2015, when the Portland Timbers beat the Crew 2-1 in Columbus. Historically, home teams have had the advantage. And while that alone won’t help Seattle on Sunday, I think the Sounders prevail, 2-1, at CenturyLink Field, especially if they can steal an early lead. That’s the plan, Roldan said. “If you can score the first one it really sets the tone for the whole game,” he said.

16. I’m generally supportive of any effort to make the MLS regular season more meaningful, and the league did just that by rewarding its best teams with home field advantage for the playoffs this year. But it seems a little wrong that one of the two finalists won’t be involved in the CONCACAF Champions League, and New York City FC, which lost its lone playoff game this postseason, will as regular season East champs.

During his annual State of the League address, MLS commissioner Don Garber made it clear that the next expansion spot in Charlotte, North Carolina's to lose. (Jennifer Buchanan/USA Today)
During his annual State of the League address, MLS commissioner Don Garber made it clear that the next expansion spot in Charlotte, North Carolina's to lose. (Jennifer Buchanan/USA Today)

17. As always, there was no shortage of news during MLS Cup week. Commissioner Don Garber all but awarded Charlotte the league’s 30th team, saying the expansion bid backed by billionaire Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper had moved “to the front of the line” ahead of cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix.

18. It’s now abundantly clear that the league wants to be in Charlotte, which would fill a hole between Atlanta and D.C. in the league’s national footprint in a market that has long been a youth and college soccer hotbed. All that’s left is for Tepper to close the deal.

19. There have been questions raised about how viable a market Charlotte is, but I covered a Bayern Munich-Inter Milan International Champions Cup match there in 2016, and came away thoroughly impressed by the city and its soccer fans, which turned out in droves and were rewarded by American Julian Green’s hat trick for Bayern. That’s anecdotal, to be sure. Still, it’s clear there’s an appetite for the sport there, and no other seasonal pro sports competition to speak of besides the NFL.

20. Pretty sure the league wants to be — and eventually will be — in Vegas and Phoenix, too.

21. There have been conflicting reports about what the expansion fee will be for Team 30 (and beyond), but this one from the Charlotte Business Journal is probably the most credible, and it says the figure could be as high as $325 million. That’s a pretty significant increase from the $200 million St. Louis and Sacramento plunked down before being awarded entry into the league earlier this year.

22. The MLS Players Association held a conference call with reporters this week to lay out some of their goals for the looming CBA negotiations. Along with with MLSPA chief Bob Foose, player reps Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Jeff Larentowicz (Atlanta United) and Diego Rubio (Colorado Rapids) were on the line. And as expected, the rhetoric was stronger than it was in July in Orlando, when Foose, Larentowicz and other players met with the media before the All-Star game.

The players have said all along that a work stoppage is possible. This time, Foose warned that another to-the-wire negotiation — the union was days away from going on strike in both 2010 and 2015 before a deal was struck — might not end the same way. “If things don’t move more quickly [this time around], the odds of a stoppage skyrocket,” Foose said. “A strategy to run out the clock is not going to be viewed favorably by the player pool.”

23. The other thing that jumped out were Foose’s comments on free agency. It’s long been assumed that MLS would be willing to drop the threshold for the movement of out-of-contract players from the current eight years of service and 28 years old to “26 and six” in this next CBA. By the sounds of it, though, they players will be asking for a lot more on that front.

“We want to see free agency opened up,” Foose said. “We want to see a system of true, unrestricted free agency at a much earlier point in players’ careers.” They might well have to strike to get it.

24. This is the final edition of 24 Thoughts. With Miami and Nashville set to join MLS in February, this column will have another new moniker next year. Thanks for reading all season, everyone.

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