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TORONTO — Justin Morrow will always be remembered for scoring the hat trick that sealed the Supporters' Shield for Toronto FC in 2017.
Good at both ends of the field with an impressive engine, the veteran fullback has always had a knack for showing up in the right place at the right time. And doing what's needed.
After 253 appearances for Toronto FC in all competitions, Morrow plays his final MLS game for the franchise Sunday. While the club still has the Canadian Championship final to play, the 34-year-old Ohio native will be honoured at BMO Field in the regular-season finale against D.C. United.
While Morrow was instrumental in the club's turnaround from doormat to champion, his legacy is likely even richer off the pitch.
"When you have someone who has given his heart and soul to a club for eight years, it's hard to put into words," said captain Michael Bradley. "You ultimately feel like no matter how many different ways you try, you're not really doing him or what he's done justice.
"But from the first day until the very last, he walked in here always ready to give everything he could for the club. Completely selfless. All about the team. All about trying to make everyone around him better, happier. We were lucky to have him here."
Coach Javier Perez said Morrow has helped in a backline that has had "many challenges" in 2021.
"Every time that we ask him to step up, he does it for the team. He played as an outside back, he played as a centre back and every time he does a great job," said the Spaniard who joined the team ahead of this season. "So I wish he didn't announce his retirement because I think he still has some football in his legs. But I think it's going to be a special day for him and he will be surrounded by his teammates and his family — which are the most important people in his life."
Morrow has already made a difference off the field in his role as executive director of Black Players for Change. He helped form the group during the tumultuous summer of 2020 when pro athletes joined the public in demanding social change.
Morrow said while he will miss the camaraderie of the locker-room the most, he has found something similar with Black Players for Change, "fighting with my peers off the field towards a common goal. There is a lot of joy in that.''
On the field it's been amazing. It's even more amazing to see what he's done off the field,'' said midfielder Jonathan Osorio, the only player to have made more appearances in a TFC shirt (290 going into Sunday's game).
Morrow cost Toronto FC US$100,000 in allocation money when he came over in a December 2013 trade with the San Jose Earthquakes.
After four seasons in San Jose, Morrow wasn't sure about coming to a Toronto club that had never had a winning season and had gone 6-17-11 in 2013.
At the time, the trade came with trepidation. He had won the Supporters' Shield, which goes to the team with the best regular-season record, with San Jose in 2012. And the move came just days before his wedding.
Morrow recalled the moment, when he talked to the media in mid-September in the wake of the announcement he was retiring at the end of the season.
"I remember being on the call and thinking 'My God, how am I going to tell my fiancee that we're moving to Toronto?''' he said with a laugh, referencing his Paraguayan wife Jimena. "And then I thought about the way Toronto FC had been run as a football club during that time and I was afraid. I was afraid for my career.
"And it's been the biggest blessing of my life to get traded here. Not only to be in this city but to be part of this club and go through everything that we've gone through together.''
Morrow told reporters in September he isn't quite sure where the future will take him. But he likes what he sees.
"I came to this decision knowing that my light is starting to shine brighter off the field than it is on the field right now,'' he said. "And with that comes a lot of joy.
"I know that I want to make this world a better place. I haven't decided which way is the best way to do that yet. Maybe it's politics, maybe it's non-profits, maybe it's running a big company. But I know I want to start with helping this club win. I want to stay around, I want to stay around in Toronto. This club is so meaningful to me. It's close to my heart."
Morrow said he decided in the off-season that this would be his final year as a player. A free agent then, he could have explored free agency but elected to re-sign for Toronto for an eighth season.
"I wasn't going to move anywhere. My family loves it here,'' he said.
Both of his daughters, Chiara and Lucia, were born in Toronto.
Named to the 2017 MLS Best XI, Morrow became the second TFC player to score a hat trick, in the 4-2 win over the New York Red Bulls in September 2017 that clinched the Supporters' Shield.
He also became the second defender in MLS history to score three times in a game, following Jose Vasquez of the L.A. Galaxy in 1997. It marked only the fifth hat trick in TFC history, with the other four coming from Sebastian Giovinco.
Morrow scored a career-high eight goals in league play that season. Toronto, which had already won the Canadian Championship, went on to win the MLS Cup that year.
Morrow also helped Toronto to the 2016 and 2018 Canadian Championships, secure the 2016, 2017 and 2019 MLS Eastern Conference championship, and was part of the team that finished runners-up in the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League.
Toronto (6-17-10) will be looking for some payback Sunday against a D.C. United team that embarrassed it in a 7-1 drubbing July 3 that cost first-year coach Chris Armas his job. The loss was the club's sixth straight, dropping its record to 1-8-2.
Ninth-place D.C. (13-15-5) needs to beat Toronto — and have the Red Bulls lose in Nashville and Montreal lose or tie visiting Orlando — to secure a playoff berth.
Toronto will finish 13th in the 14-team Eastern Conference whatever happens.
TFC will be without the injured Yeferson Soteldo, Omar Gonzalez and Eriq Zavaleta as well as long-term absentees Ayo Akinola, Tsubasa Endoh and Ralph Priso. Goalkeeper Alex Bono is questionable.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 6, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press