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Why rising USMNT striker Jordan Morris chose college soccer over the pros

On the first day of the fall quarter at Stanford University, Jordan Morris walks into his Introduction to Earth Systems class, finds a seat near the back of the lecture hall, and starts flipping through his syllabus. His long summer is over.

In some ways, it ended just a few days ago, on the field at Gillette Stadium, where he and the rest of the United States men’s national soccer team suffered one of their most embarrassing losses in recent years. Facing Brazil in a friendly match, the U.S. back line got turned inside and out by an unending stream of attackers. Midfield fixtures Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones appeared out of step with each other and disconnected from the game. The American attack was mostly feckless, unable to create chances until Danny Williams rocketed a ball into the back of the net moments before the final whistle sealed a 4-1 defeat. The closest thing to a bright spot in the game might have been 20-year-old Seattle native Morris, who replaced Jozy Altidore in the 57th minute and looked … somewhat decent?

This is no revelation. Somewhat decent performances are not the stuff of legend. Still, it was unexpected to see Morris making threatening runs into the box and holding off defenders while looking to attack. The Brazil game capped a spring and summer that saw Morris begin working his way up the American striker depth chart and flashing the potential to become a mainstay in the USMNT lineup. There he was in San Antonio, slotting home the game winner against Mexico. And there he was in Germany, playing a dummy that helped spring Bobby Wood for a go-ahead goal against the world champs.

And now Morris, a college junior, is back in school, pen out on the first day of class, listening to a lecture about the age of Earth. (“It’s very, very old.”) He’s enjoying a few weeks on campus before heading to Kansas City to help the U.S. under-23 team attempt to qualify for the Olympics. Morris is a novelty — the first college player called up to the national team since 1999, the first one to score a goal since 1992. Even with the U23 team, a group composed almost entirely of college-age players, Morris is the only one who plays college soccer. The others are scattered around North America and Europe, playing for professional first teams or their youth or reserve squads. There’s Rubio Rubin, regularly scoring goals in the Dutch Eredivisie; Gedion Zelalem, on loan from Arsenal with Scotland’s venerable Rangers FC; and Matt Miazga, starting for the New York Red Bulls and looking like perhaps the best prospect in MLS. All of them could be in college. None is. And then there’s Morris, still at Stanford, and in some ways the most accomplished of them all. Only he was considered as a possible addition to the full national team’s roster for Saturday’s CONCACAF Cup game against Mexico at the Rose Bowl.

The college game has long been anathema to American soccer experts. The outlines of the anti-college argument are simple: Collegians train too infrequently and play weak competition. NCAA rules force them into a nonsensical schedule, playing a version of the game that barely resembles the one played by professionals. And they do all of this while their future national team opponents — young athletes from Europe, Latin America, and around the world — devote every moment of every day to developing as players, learning under top coaches and from established professionals, with many of the prospects already earning paychecks themselves.

They do all of this while Morris remains in this room, leaning back in his seat, listening to a lecture that references the Archean and Proterozoic eons, in a room with more students than attended his most recent Stanford match. He has the talent and the drive to be a star for his country and his future club. So what, exactly, is Jordan Morris doing here?

The first time Morris met USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann, Morris was standing on Stanford’s training grounds. It was last May, and the national team had just arrived for its pre–World Cup camp. Morris approached assistant Tab Ramos, for whom he’d played with the U.S. U20s. Ramos introduced him to Klinsmann, then made small talk before dropping a casual question: Would Morris be interested in practicing with the national team?

“I had this moment,” remembers Morris, who tried to remain nonchalant, as if unmoved by the possibility of training with the team he’d long dreamed of joining. “Ummmmm … OK!” The next day, Morris joined the team as the players ran through training stations — touch drills, speed drills, and then a round of quick 4-on-4 games. The intensity was unlike anything he’d experienced, the ball and the bodies all moving faster than he’d ever seen. Yet Morris acclimated quickly. He already knew DeAndre Yedlin and Brad Evans1 from his time at the Seattle Sounders Academy, and the other veterans made him feel welcome right away. He managed to make it through the day without embarrassment — for a college kid, a success.

The next afternoon, Klinsmann invited Stanford’s team to scrimmage against the USMNT. The Cardinal settled immediately into a bunker-style game plan, defending with all 10 men and looking to spring Morris — a natural burner who’s been clocked around 4.5 seconds in the 40 — on a counterattack. “When that moment comes,” Stanford coach Jeremy Gunn told his players, “they won’t be ready to handle him.” The national team scored almost immediately, and Stanford prepared itself for a long day. Yet as the game wore on, the Cardinal kept its defensive shape, and soon enough, they maintained possession long enough to work their way up the field, where Morris darted past the back line, collected a through ball, and held off the defenders before slotting a shot past Nick Rimando and into the back of the net.

Of the two center backs Morris beat for the goal, neither made the final World Cup roster. “I think he helped Jurgen out with that one,” says Gunn. “He made that decision a little easier.” When interviewed, Morris didn’t want to dwell on which players he’d beat for the goal. “I don’t want to gloat or anything,” he said. “I mean, for one thing, we were playing like this was the game of our lives. They’d been going through three-a-days, and now they’re playing a college team. It wasn’t a normal game situation.”

Later that summer, just days after Belgium had eliminated the U.S. team in the Round of 16, Morris received a call from a number he didn’t recognize. It was Klinsmann. The coach had called just to chat, making small talk and asking about Morris’s training. “I thought, Huh, that’s interesting,” Morris says. “That’s not the kind of phone call you really expect to get, just out of the blue.” Months later, Klinsmann called again. He was coming to Palo Alto and wanted to have lunch. So Morris, Gunn, and Morris’s father all met Klinsmann at the Four Seasons. No one was sure what to expect. “My first thought was that he was going to want to talk generally about Jordan’s future,” Gunn says. “And, of course, you immediately think the conversation is going to be, ‘If you want to play for us, you need to leave Stanford. You need to go pro.’”

But Klinsmann was there for something else. He told Morris he wanted to call him up to the national team. “I got in the car afterward,” says Morris. “And I just started laughing. ‘What? Is this serious?’ I really, really couldn’t believe it.” Morris traveled with the team to a friendly in the Czech Republic. He never left the bench, but Klinsmann liked what he saw from Morris in training enough to call him back in November, when Morris made his international debut against Ireland. Since then, Morris has been in the mix consistently for the United States. “I seriously think I blacked out when that happened,” Morris says of his Mexico goal. “I remember getting the ball, and I remember watching the replay that night, but I barely remember actually scoring.”

A powerful and instinctive player, Morris has the vision to pick out the right pass and the speed to blow past even the most athletic defenders. “He’s a forward, very simple,” Klinsmann told reporters after calling Morris into his first camp. “He reads the game very well ahead, he sees the space in front of him and can take people on one-against-one, and at the same time he knows his path is a different one. We see the talent.”

Morris has the potential to develop into a fixture in the American attack in coming years, but he’s no child prodigy. Morris is already 20, older than Jozy Altidore was when he scored against Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup. Morris isn’t even the youngest forward to play for the national team in the past year. (Rubio Rubin is 16 months younger.) And though much has been made of Morris’s performance in those pre–World Cup training sessions, in truth, he had already been on Klinsmann’s radar.

“We have this special kid coming through the academy,” Klinsmann remembered Sounders coach Sigi Schmid telling him, years before Morris’s call-up. But there was one issue. Said Schmid: “He wants to go to college.”

Morris controls the ball for Stanford in a 2013 match against Cal State Northridge.

Jeff Golden/Getty Images Morris controls the ball for Stanford in a 2013 match against Cal State Northridge.

“College soccer is not nearly as good of an environment for developing players as it should be.”

That quote comes not from Klinsmann, a noted critic of the U.S. talent development model. Nor does it come from the technical director of a foreign or club team. It comes from Elmar Bolowich, head coach at Creighton University — right now, the best college soccer team in the country.

The German Bolowich has devoted much of his adult life to American college soccer, winning 280 games over 22 years at North Carolina and now turning Creighton into one of the strongest programs in Division I. He enjoys the opportunity to coach young talent, and he appreciates the facilities and the job stability that the college game can provide. “It’s a good environment developing people,” he says. “You can develop leadership abilities that last long after they stop playing.” But if you want to develop someone into a world-class athlete? “The college system is not designed for that,” he says.

The problems are legion. NCAA rules limit college coaches to 20 hours a week with their teams during the season and eight hours during the offseason. Compare that to professional youth academies, where players devote themselves fully to athletic development, and Americans are at a disadvantage. Then there’s the college schedule: Because of the dated U.S. model of seasonal sports, NCAA soccer teams play their entire competitive season in the fall. “Nowhere in the world is soccer a seasonal sport,” says Bolowich. “Only here.” This leaves teams to cram a year’s worth of games into a three-month season, playing twice a week, often with less than 48 hours’ rest in between. “The games should be spread out,” Bolowich says. “That would allow for better recovery and better training. The way it is now, you have a really hard time during the week finding one good day when you can have a 90-minute, good, intense training session.”

The compact schedule influences college soccer’s rules. Instead of the global standard of three substitutions per game with no reentry, college teams are given unlimited subs. “Tactically, it takes a lot out of the game,” says the USMNT’s Alejandro Bedoya, who played at Fairleigh Dickinson and Boston College. Rather than preserving energy for the full 90 minutes, players can push themselves to exhaustion, knowing that a sub is coming soon. This tends to rob the game of its rhythm and grace, turning it instead into a battle of quickness and strength. “The tactics are, ‘Go, go, go; push, push, push,’” says Bedoya. “It’s this mentality of, ‘Let’s get an early lead, and then you can come out and rest for the next game we have to play in two days.’”

You could look at Bedoya, a fixture in the American midfield and a regular starter with Nantes in France’s Ligue 1, and call him proof of U.S. college soccer’s virtues. He earned a degree and then set off for Europe, well equipped to begin his professional career. Yet Bedoya can’t help but look at the youth players at his French club and feel jealous of the opportunities they receive. “I came to Europe and started to see the ways kids are training, and it’s unbelievable,” he says. “Here at FC Nantes, the school is right here on the training ground. They’re all in a professional environment at 16, 17 years old. If one day we need extra bodies, we call them in and all of a sudden they’re training with 30-year-old professionals. That’s going to make you grow and mature as a player really fast.”

Bedoya remembers himself as a collegian, desperate to get better but unable to train as often as he believed was necessary. “Because of the restrictions, if you wanted to train beyond the number of hours the NCAA allowed, you had to do it on your own as players,” Bedoya says. “So we’re trying to organize everyone, but guys have different schedules, and it becomes impossible.” Occasionally, he allows himself to wonder what his career might have been like if he’d joined a European academy instead. “If I had grown up in this kind of environment and had access to this kind of training, then who knows what kind of player I could have been?” he says. “I’ll never know what my ability could have been and where my career could have taken me.” Bedoya is the quintessential American soccer player — tough, hardworking, and possessed of solid but unspectacular technical skill. “What kind of technical ability might I have developed?” he wonders. “Maybe I could have been on a different route as a professional. Maybe I could have been at a club like FC Nantes at a younger age. You never know about bigger clubs, bigger leagues, bigger money. You wonder.”

And yet there’s another side of that hypothetical. “College was amazing,” Bedoya says. “It’s hard to imagine not having a college experience. The classes, the friends, the partying, the nights out. Maybe I would have been on a track to get to a bigger club and make more money if I had taken another route, but that’s not everything. I do feel like I was better prepared for life after soccer — even just for life in general.”

Morris playing with the U.S. men's U-23 team.

Shaun Clark/Getty Images Morris playing with the U.S. men’s U23 team.

The moral panic over young men skipping years of college to play professional basketball or football is absent from the soccer conversation. There’s no hand-wringing over the missed educational opportunities, no loud debate over the virtue of amateurism. By staying at Stanford, Morris is Brandon Jennings or Emmanuel Mudiay in reverse — making a decision about his own development that is, within the context of his sport, countercultural.

Morris decided he wanted to go to Stanford in the summer before his freshman year of high school. He’d never been on campus, but he envisioned being surrounded by brilliance and unending sun and committed almost immediately after Stanford offered him a scholarship. “Once I finally came to campus,” Morris says, “I saw that it really was everything I expected it to be. I knew I wanted to be here.”

Since he broke through with the national team, calls for Morris to turn pro have intensified. After the European friendlies in June, an article on put it plainly enough: “JORDAN MORRIS NEEDS TO TURN PRO.” The Sounders own his MLS homegrown rights, and they reportedly offered him a “lucrative” contract this spring. Yet even after the attention lavished on him after his goal against Mexico, Morris decided to stay.

“I think a lot of people write off college soccer,” he says. “You can say it’s not good for development, but it’s situational. If you go to MLS and don’t play, are you really getting a better experience?” Morris says that joining the national team has only bolstered his confidence that Stanford was the right course for him. He credits college ball for one of his best plays with the USMNT, the dummy that set up the goal against Germany, where Morris feigned as if he were about to receive a pass, then let it roll on to Wood while turning and making a run of his own. “I learned that here,” he says. “We practice that all the time.”

He continues: “I consider this to be a professional environment. Maybe people don’t realize that. It’s sharp. It’s intense. I feel prepared for any situation I go into.”

Stanford coach Gunn, a native Englishman who moved to the States to play soccer at Cal State Bakersfield, has become an evangelist for the college game. As Morris has weighed professional options, Gunn says he’s tried to avoid pressuring him to remain in school. Yet he bristles at the notion that his star striker has suffered by staying. “There is no perfect, correct path to success,” Gunn says. “But there are certain things that you want. You want to be surrounded by great players. Jordan is surrounded by players with talent and incredible work ethic and desire for improvement. You want great support staff. You want great facilities. There aren’t 10 leagues in the world — in any sport — that provide the support staff and the facilities that we have here at Stanford. Just because something is a professional environment, that doesn’t mean it’s a high-performance environment. This is a high-performance environment.”

Gunn goes on: “Now, would Jordan learn great things by playing with veterans? Absolutely. We can’t provide for him a chance to train next to Neymar every day. He’s not going to get that here. But there’s a culture of success here. People wonder how he can go score a goal against Mexico and then come back to college. Well, when he comes here, he gets in line for lunch, and he’s standing between an Olympic medalist and a future top-10 NFL draft pick. There’s a culture of high expectations.”

Gunn becomes animated while listing Stanford’s merits, an Englishman defending the uniquely American institution of college athletics. “Let’s look at the academy model in most countries,” he says. “You’re 16, 17, 18 years old, and your entire life revolves around soccer. You’re going to school, but just barely. So you have this system, and it produces some really fantastic players. But what does it do for most of the other players? It just spits them back out. They’d dedicated their lives to soccer, but they’re still not good enough to play professionally. Now what? They don’t have many options. If you’re the club, then that’s great — all you need to do is develop a few really good players. But for society, for developing human beings, is that really something we want?

“I think we have something really special here in the United States. There’s always talk about how we should be copying these other countries, and in some ways that might be true. But in other ways, they should be copying us.”

On a Friday night this September, Morris streaks up and down the field at Cagan Stadium against the University of San Francisco, having his way with defenders each time he touches the ball. A few hundred people sit watching in the stands, many of them unaware that they’re watching a rising national team star. “So does that mean he gets to play in the Olympics or something?” an usher asks when I mention Morris to him. “I knew that there was one guy who was gone for a lot of games — I guess that must be why.”

Elsewhere in the world, Morris’s USMNT teammates are preparing for upcoming games against the likes of Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain. Meanwhile, he’s carving up the back line of a team that finished last season in third place in the West Coast Conference. He has acres of room for improvement, in his technique and positioning and, according to Gunn, his willingness to impose his will on the game. “I want to see him burst through the wall,” says Gunn. “I want to see him take command. Someday, I believe, he’s finally going to realize how talented he is.”

He could be in Seattle, pushing for playing time over Clint Dempsey and star Nigerian striker Obafemi Martins, or he could be in Europe trying to claw his way into a starting XI. But instead Morris is here, scoring on a header in the 59th minute before exiting play with a 3-1 win in the bag. These are the moments he has chosen. Behind him, the sun is setting the sky on fire, and before him, his friends have their arms raised in celebration of an easy win. The Cardinal football team plays USC tomorrow night. The fall quarter starts soon after that.

“This is an experience I’m never going to get back,” he says. “I get to be in school at Stanford. I get to live with my best friends. Every day I’m in the locker room with the guys I call my brothers. That’s the experience I’m talking about. On a professional team, you’re probably not going to have that. You’re competing for spots, contracts, and everything.

“It won’t be the same. It won’t be this.”

Filed Under: Soccer, USMNT, Jordan Morris, Stanford Cardinal, NCAA Soccer, MLS, Jurgen Klinsmann

Jordan Ritter Conn is a staff writer for Grantland. He wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.

Archive @ jordanconn