Stanford will find out its first opponent in the NCAA men’s soccer tournament on Monday. The Cardinal’s best player, forward Jordan Morris, won’t be with his classmates for the announcement, though — he’ll be with the U.S. men’s national team in Trinidad & Tobago, preparing for the second U.S. World Cup qualifier. Morris is a special case, the first collegiate player to play for the national team in over a decade. Yet in some ways, he’s the perfect example of American soccer at a crossroads.
American sports fans are comfortable with a school-focused model of player development. To make it big in football or basketball, a player stars for his high school, earns a college scholarship, then wows pro teams while playing for his university. Yet traditional soccer development is nothing like this; most players around the world start by playing in the youth ranks of professional clubs at young ages, and work their way up through a cutthroat environment.
Morris, in his junior season at Stanford, is one of the best hopes for America’s soccer future — a lightning-fast but physical forward who has been a standout for U.S. youth teams. Given that the Seattle native played for his hometown MLS team’s youth academy, the Sounders have the first crack among MLS teams to sign him. At the moment, his dilemma seems to be whether to sign with Seattle following the current soccer season, or to play his senior season for Stanford.
Whatever his decision, it seems likely that Morris will go on to have success in the MLS. Cyle Larin, another college-trained player with similar attributes to Morris, just completed a 17-goal rookie season for Orlando City. Despite that, Morris, Larin, and other college players may not reach their full potential by going through the college and MLS ranks.
College players are allowed an extremely short season: just 20 hours of in-season soccer time per week. Their counterparts at professional clubs around the world are focusing entirely on soccer, playing all year, and testing themselves against better players. College will develop more educated and well-rounded people, but for the handful of players with world-class talent like Morris, it might be holding them back.
The U.S. national team is crying out for a few truly first-rate players. While the NCAA and the MLS are comfortable options, and MLS gets more lucrative for national team players every year, it’s a system that has not developed much world-class talent.
In this case, what’s good for Morris might not be good for the U.S. and vice versa. His choice may have more to do with how he sees his potential. Is he good enough to be great in the MLS, or good enough to be great on an even bigger stage?
• The lineup for the 2016 NASL season keeps shifting. This week the league announced a new team in Oklahoma City called Rayo OKC, to begin play next year — a short timeline, especially given the league’s previous failed expansion effort in that city. Meanwhile, San Antonio Scorpions owner Gordon Hartmann sold his team’s stadium to the owners of the NBA Spurs, who reportedly want to start a USL team — meaning the possible end of the NASL Scorpions. The Atlanta Silverbacks, owned by the NASL and facing competition from an MLS team in 2017, are also in doubt for next year.
• The U.S. men’s U-23 team suffered a 2-1 friendly loss to Brazil on Wednesday, a game that included disheartening performances from such potential future stars as Gedion Zelalem and Julian Green. The team will need to beat Colombia over two legs in March to qualify for the Rio Olympics; at the moment, that appears unlikely.
• EqualizerSoccer.com named Woodbury native Kassey Kallman to a list of 12 players who deserve a call-up to the national team.
Kallman re-signed with Boston for the 2016 NWSL season, a year that could be pivotal for her future national team career.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Euro 2016 qualifying: Denmark at Sweden, 1:45 p.m. Saturday, FS2. The Scandinavian rivals aren’t playing nice ahead of this match; Danish TV is running ads for the games that feature people throwing away IKEA furniture and burning ABBA records. Only one of these two will make it through the playoff round to reach the Euros next summer. This is the first leg of the match.
Big East tournament: Creighton at Georgetown, noon Sunday, FS2. Creighton forward Fabian Herbers and midfielder Timo Pitter, both among the top 10 collegiate players, spearhead a loaded Bluejays attack. In their way is junior Georgetown defender Joshua Yaro, who might be the best player in college soccer not named Jordan Morris. Both teams are in the national top 10.
Euro 2016 qualifying: Norway at Hungary, 1:45 p.m. Sunday, ESPN. The Norwegians haven’t been to a major tournament since 2000, but Hungary’s drought stretches back to 1986. Hungary finished third in Group F mostly because of last-place Greece’s implosion, and while Hungary is higher-ranked, Norway might be the most likely to win the two-legged playoff.
NASL: Ottawa at New York, 4 p.m. Sunday, ESPN3. The NASL title match will come down to New York, the league’s most dominant team, against Ottawa, the league’s hottest. Legends Marcos Senna and Raul will retire following this game, giving the Cosmos the chance to send their latest stars off with a championship — but the red-hot Fury is confident it can play spoiler.