On Jan. 5, Morris confirms what most have suspected for months: he will forego his final season of NCAA availability and turn professional. Three days later, Morris is named the winner of the Hermann Trophy, soccer’s Heisman.
He boards a plane bound for Bremen, Germany, where he’ll work out with the Bundesliga club based there at the behest of then-U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann. The Sounders, who own Morris’ MLS rights and twice previously tried to get him to leave school early, await his decision on pins and needles.
Morris stops reading his social-media mentions, exchanges emails with USMNT legend Landon Donovan, gets homesick for his parents’ house in Mercer Island. He signs the richest Homegrown Player contact in MLS history with the Sounders and is officially unveiled alongside club brass on Jan. 21.
Just a few hours after general manager Garth Lagerwey promises not to overhype the team’s highest-profile rookie signing ever, Morris is pictured side-by-side with FC Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi in an ill-fated tweet sent out by the team’s official account. The hype train gathers momentum.
Morris arrives late to the team’s preseason camp in Tucson, Ariz., having spent the past few weeks training with the national team.
Seattle coach Sigi Schmid rolls out his plans for a new three-forward formation, with the intention of rotating Morris, Obafemi Martins, Clint Dempsey and Nelson Valdez in order to save veteran legs and lessen the burden of expectation on Morris.
On Feb. 14, a report surfaces that Martins is bound for the Chinese Super League. Martins’ outbound transfer is confirmed a few days later. So much for that four-man rotation up top. Best of luck, rookie.
Morris is held scoreless in his first five MLS appearances. Playing on the wing, rather than at center forward as he’d done throughout most of his collegiate career, he looks bereft. Later, Morris would admit that his confidence sank so low that he caught himself looking up at the ticking clock and wishing the games would just end.
“I was almost waiting for the whistle,” Morris said. “I’m like: ‘I’m too nervous to be out here. I don’t know what was going on.’”
Seattle opens the league campaign with three consecutive losses for the first time in its MLS history, the third a disheartening home defeat to rival Vancouver.
Just piling on at this point: Morris’ under-23 U.S. national team loses an Olympic qualifying playoff to Colombia, ending their road short of Rio and snuffing out what he has described as a childhood dream.
“I think it’s going to be pretty tough for a while to kind of deal with that,” he admits at the time.
Morris is benched for the team’s home match against Montreal, Schmid referencing the “psychological” toll of that Olympic qualifying loss.
The rookie comes off the bench as the Sounders finally notch their first win of the season but again fails to score. Ditto for the following weekend in Houston, a drab 1-1 tie with one of the worst teams in MLS.
Hallelujah, a breakthrough: Morris scores his first professional goal, the game-winner in a 2-1 home victory over Philadelphia. This begins a run of four goals in four straight games.
Despite the floodgates having been opened, Morris is left off Klinsmann’s USMNT roster for the Copa America Centenario tournament to be hosted partially in Seattle. The coach describes it as a 50/50 decision that went in favor of 33-year-old San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski. Morris puts on a brave face publicly, but the rejection stings. Seattle loses three straight to close out the month.
Morris watches the USMNT’s run to the Copa America semifinals from afar. The two-week break to accommodate the tournament doesn’t do the Sounders much good. They return to action with back-to-back defeats. After the listless home loss to New York City FC, Seattle captain Brad Evans blasts his teammates for “being OK” with losing.
On July 26, with the team 10 points out of the Western Conference playoff spots, the Sounders part ways with Schmid. Morris, in a sentiment echoed by many in the locker room, feels partially responsible for the ouster of the only MLS coach the club had ever known.
Morris has known Schmid for years, going back to when he was allowed to train with the big-league team while on break from Stanford. Their families have grown close off the field, too. Morris takes the news harder than most.
Asked to pinpoint the moment when their season began to turn around, Morris, a number of his teammates and new coach Brian Schmetzer all gesture toward the Aug. 7 match at Orlando. They fell behind early due to a sloppily defended corner kick but rallied behind Dempsey’s hat trick to emerge from the Citrus Bowl 3-1 winners.
Dempsey was the headliner, but Morris was the spark. He was rampant, making run after run behind the overmatched Orlando defense. The rookie was credited with two assists, but as Dempsey put it afterward, “he could have had five.” “He’s becoming a complete player, not only somebody that can score goals, but can get assists,” Dempsey said of his burgeoning chemistry with Morris. “He’s coming along great, and the future is just looking brighter and brighter for him.”
With Nicolas Lodeiro having arrived from Boca Juniors as an impact midseason signing and Dempsey and Morris clicking, the Sounders have transformed into one of the most fearsome attacks in the league. Then Dempsey has an irregular heartbeat diagnosed following the team’s emphatic Aug. 21 home win over rival Portland. He’d be shut down for the season a few weeks later. As quickly as reinforcements arrived, the onus shifts back onto Morris’ shoulders just as fast.
Another turning point: the stunning 4-2 win at Los Angeles on Sept. 25, Seattle’s first win over the Galaxy at the StubHub Center since 2009.
The loss of Dempsey left the Sounders temporarily unmoored, they’ll admit. The weekend after his diagnosis, they were blasted 4-2 by the Timbers at Providence Park. The odds of completing their midseason turnaround again shifted back in the wrong direction. Then, Morris showcased just how far he’d come since those early-season struggles by single-handedly taking over that game against the Galaxy. He scored twice, the go-ahead goal plus an insurance tally, netting the second with his much-maligned left foot. “As the season has gone on, the game has slowed down for me a little bit,” Morris said. “In moments like that, I don’t panic as much.” The Sounders pull within three points of the final playoff spot.
A perhaps underappreciated element of Morris’ first-year with the Sounders: the absence of a rookie wall. Most guys transitioning to the pro game slam into it, like clockwork, two-thirds of the way through the marathon MLS season.
Despite having essentially played straight through without a legitimate break since last August, however, Morris has somehow found a way to skirt around that wall.
Sounders performance and sports science director Dave Tenney offers a novel explanation: Morris has adjusted to the increased workload so well, at least in part, because of the type-1 diabetes the player has dealt with since the age of 9. Morris is so in tune with his body that he was prepared for the transition in a way rookies seldom are.
Seattle qualifies for the postseason on the final day of the regular season before outlasting Kansas City in a hard-fought knockout-round match at CenturyLink Field.
Morris is named Major League Soccer’s Rookie of the Year on Nov. 10. His 12 regular-season goals were the most in league history by an American first-year player. His six game-winners were a rookie record.
The Sounders comfortably overcome top-seeded Dallas 4-2 on aggregate in the conference semifinals. Morris injured his hamstring stretching for a ball in the second leg in Frisco, but the two-and-a-half week break between games allows him to recover in time for the Colorado series.
Morris scores the game-tying goal in the first leg of the Western Conference finals on Nov. 22, pouncing on a rebounded Cristian Roldan shot. His performance in the second leg on Nov. 27 will go down in Sounders lore: the stomach bug, the hobbled right leg, the series-clinching goal lifted inside the far post and realization of a dream years in the making.
The MLS Cup final at Toronto’s BMO Field and the chapter still to be written. Returning to his hometown with Seattle’s first big-league soccer championship in tow would certainly do justice to the epic nature of the rest of Morris’ 2016.