It took a rule change, a tense few days worrying whether he’d make his professional career announcement wearing a different shade of green, and probably more than a little soul-searching, but MLS has landed its man. Jordan Morris has officially signed with the Seattle Sounders after rejecting an offer to play for Bundesliga club Werder Bremen. And for me, strangely enough, that feels something like relief.
Morris, if you’re unfamiliar, is an American 21-year-old hot striker prospect who, despite having yet to play a single professional match, has become something close to USMNT fans’ latest Next Great Hope. He impressed enough in his three-year college career to get a handful of international caps and, as the past few weeks have shown, to start an international bidding war (well, what passes for one when dealing with an American 21-year-old college player who’s available on a free transfer) for his services. It’s always an exciting time when diehard USMNT fans see one of their potential studs of the future garnering so much interest at home and abroad, and just as important as interest from a top-tier European club like Werder is making sure the player makes the best decision for himself and his future development.
That’s exactly what has made the intrigue around Morris’s decision so intense, and what has spurred my own conflicting response to it. What really is the best for Morris’s future? On one hand, the Bundesliga is unquestionably the better league, and Werder the better team. As Jürgen Klinsmann so often says, the only way to reach the top level of soccer is to compete where top level soccer is played. That is not the case with MLS and the Sounders.
On the other hand, the Sounders will undoubtedly offer him more guaranteed playing time, seeing as he’d be treated as the franchise’s and possibly even the league’s future, rather than being just another prospect among many in Germany. In MLS he’ll be given every opportunity to prove himself, and the scene we’ve repeatedly watch over the years proves, young Americans who make the switch over to Europe only to be tied to the bench don’t get much better if they don’t play.
So it’s perfectly logical for Morris to choose the Sounders over Werder Bremen. But what this move also means is that we’ll never know how good Morris is unless or until he goes to Europe.
For a number of reasons—mainly because of the quality of the league itself—it’s impossible to compare MLS players to their counterparts in the best leagues. Most of MLS’s best players are those who got too old to hack it in Europe and decided to come over here and dominate as generously-compensated ringers. Most of the better young ones become fodder for rumored European moves but either never actually make the jump (Graham Zusi, Gyasi Zardes) or do receive a transfer and never find their feet (DeAndre Yedlin, Brek Shea). To some degree, it’s probably better in the long run for an American player to stick to a league where he belongs rather than one out of his depth.
And that’s why I am to some degree relieved that Morris chose the Sounders and not Werder. Sure, he’s not challenging himself at the highest level, and at 21 it’s not like he has a bunch of years to considerably improve upon his skills that only had one, relegation-threatened European club kicking his tires, but at least we don’t have to go through another Jozy Altidore or Julian Green or Yedlin situation, attaching all this hope to a player and being humiliated when he doesn’t reward it with goals and glory. Maybe Morris pulls a Clint Dempsey, taking MLS by storm, getting himself an even better European offer in a year or two, and balling out when he gets there. It may not be likely, but it’s certainly possible.
In any case, that feeling of expected disappointment becoming relief is telling, I think. American soccer fans know where the best soccer is played, we aspire to cultivate talents of our own that can swim in those waters, yet we’ve been shown time and time again to be so far from that standard that we worry more about—and even expect—impending failure than the possibility of rousing success.
For the time being, we can remain content with our lot in the sport or, we can finally decide to start pushing for some of the infrastructural changes that could lift us up from mediocrity. The one thing we can’t do is keep producing what are in all likelihood mid-level prospects and telling ourselves this time it’ll be different.
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