As much of the US soccer media gathered in Los Angeles Tuesday for the 2016 edition of MLS media day, much of the American soccer world focused on the decision of a 21-year old-half a world away. In case you were separated from water, toilet, roaming data or internet, Jordan Morris has decided to turn down a reported contract offer from Werder Bremen of the Bundesliga because, at present, he wants to remain in America.
The decision by Morris was reported early Tuesday morning on Werder Bremen’s club website, with the following statement from club chief executive Thomas Eichin.
“Following intense talks, the player made clear that he currently sees his future in America. Of course we respect this decision.”
That the club even issued a statement after not signing a player who was at the club on trial is a testament to their respect for Andi Herzog, the Austrian who manages Morris with the US U-23s and who starred for Die Werderaner as a player.
Morris is expected to sign a Homegrown Player deal with Seattle in the near future.
It is difficult to blame Morris, who according to Sounders general manager Garth Lagerway is set to sign the most lucrative Homegrown Player deal in MLS history, for staying home and getting paid. No specifics are known about Werder Bremen’s offer, but it is difficult to imagine, even with the lavish wages of high-level European soccer, that Werder’s offer was any larger than what Seattle is prepared to pay the Stanford product.
But finances aren’t a sole consideration, and from a purely soccer perspective, the questions and rapid fire reaction to Morris’s decision to stay at home was largely negative. Yes, there were some reasonable takes, like this one …
… but by and large, the social media response was what you’d expect from American soccer Twitter: messy, negative, hot and not entirely fact-driven. Morris was lambasted for not embracing that holy grail of American footballing challenges, playing in a top league in Europe, and called everything from a coward to (gasp) “another Landon Donovan.”
Setting aside for a moment that Morris being “another Landon Donovan” means we can all make hotel reservations for the 2018 World Cup quarterfinals, what resonates in the Morris fear are two arguments, neither of which is innovative or recent.
The first argument is the “holy grail” argument. Success at the club level in Europe is a measuring stick around the world, and rightly so. Success for American players at the club level in Europe is the “holy grail,” and must be pursued at all costs.
The premise of this argument is rooted in another question: “How elite can an American player be?” It rests on the assumption that the answer is “not that elite” if the player doesn’t prove himself in an elite league at a young age. The Bundesliga is an elite league, by all accounts one of the best four or five in the world. Since a team in the first division of that league offered Morris a contract, this should be a no-brainer.
Still, this argument assumes too much.
There may be merit to the idea that playing against better clubs for a bad club in Europe is a more productive way to develop than staying in the US. But as the money in the US improves, the quality of the league improves, and playing time, by no means a guarantee in Europe, is all but certain for Morris in MLS. So the question about where one can best develop is no longer a simple one, even in seemingly positive situations.
Further, the argument assumes the leap must be made at a young age. History frames the debate otherwise. Most Americans who have made their mark in Europe have done so with at least a short spell in MLS preceding the leap. Players like Ale Bedoya, Steve Cherundolo and Oguchi Onyewu are exceptions to that rule, and of that threesome, only Onyewu and Bedoya were college players first. The laundry list of players who have made the leap with an MLS foundation is longer, and outside of Cherundolo, more distinguished. Former New England standout Clint Dempsey was an outstanding player in the English Premier League. Geoff Cameron parlayed a solid stint at Houston into a starting role at Stoke. Ditto former Dynamo Stu Holden, who was a fixture at every club he played for prior to the Nigel de Jong and Jonny Evans incidents. Brian McBride saved Fulham from the drop, but not before he lit the lamp for the Crew for a few seasons. Tim Howard and Brad Guzan were MLS keepers before they were Premier League starters. The list goes on. Even Landon Donovan was eventually a dominant Premier League player, albeit on loan with Everton.
The idea that MLS can’t prepare players for the next stage of their career is as old as the league. Evidence that the argument is incorrect is almost as old.
Morris isn’t tying himself to MLS by choosing to play for Seattle now. In fact, Bremen indicated they would “watch his progress.” Given he’s already shown well for the national team, will have the opportunity to develop in a place he is comfortable and at least, in the short term, will be playing with a prolific international scorer like Clint Dempsey and an effective European club player like Oba Martins, it is either myopic or shortsighted to suggest the move does anything immediately to damage Morris’s long-term potential.
The second argument is almost an offshoot of the “holy grail” argument, that fans desperately want Americans to play in elite leagues because they believe that is the most viable path to the national team winning more games and, ultimately, a World Cup. Again, there is truth to the argument. Jürgen Klinsmann has repeatedly reiterated this argument during his tenure as national team manager. History shows us that the best sides in the world are largely comprised of players who play club soccer in Europe’s elite leagues. If a player chooses MLS, the argument goes, the player hurts the national team.
But this argument assumes what is good for MLS is necessarily bad for the national team, and partly thanks to a misguided interpretation of Klinsmann’s commentary about players challenging themselves in Europe, it has now been refurbished and packaged into as absolute truth by Klinsmann’s most ardent supporters.
This argument has been trending for a couple of weeks, so much so that Don Garber actually commented on the idea that somehow US Soccer, with Klinsmann maintaining his roles as exulted technical director as well as managerial wizard, was pushing the Stanford product away from MLS. This explained why the trial was with Bremen, where Herzog was a revered figure, and so forth. The conspiracy theories of the Klinsmann apostles’ river runneth over into the larger conspiracy river of the Eurosnobs.
There’s so often little room for nuance in the age of hot takes and Twitter dot com, but here, some perspective and a deep set of cleansing breaths might be useful. First, there’s the idea that if young players choose MLS, that’s ultimately good for the league, and if the brand of the league improves, US Soccer improves. Like it or not, until or unless a reasonable competitor to MLS develops, what’s good for MLS is at the least tangentially linked to what is good for soccer in the United States. And quality young players like Morris choosing to stay home strengthens the league.
Morris choosing MLS also should also be considered as a testament to the league’s brand, at least in soccer circles, at present. Morris grew up in Seattle. Like Wayne Rooney at Everton or countless Brazilian players who begin their (European-bound) careers playing for the club they watched as boys, Morris feels a pull and affection for the Sounders. We so often praise organic support when it comes to supporters’ sections. Why does that praise stop when a local player who has options chooses to play for the local club? Isn’t that why we want stronger academies? And isn’t the job of American clubs to identify local talent and inoculate them into the system, so that they are ultimately on the larger development radar?
Beyond these common sense arguments, there’s just not much logic to the notion that Morris’ choice negatively impacts the men’s national team, at least in the short-term. If the US is relying on a 21-year-old fresh out of Stanford to lead the team this summer, there are more significant problems to worry about. (Of course, there are. But that’s a different rabbit hole). The US will succeed or fail this summer behind the veteran core already in place and behind the newer pieces integrated into the fold in 2015. And outside of DeAndre Yedlin and Bobby Wood, those players — Gyasi Zardes, Darlington Nagbe, Matt Miazga — are largely based in MLS.
Being judgmental about a 21-year-old’s decision has less to do with the USMNT and more to do with the way fans and journalists frame the debate the long-term health of US Soccer. It would be great if those debates were healthier.
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