Jordan Morris and the difficult path to playing soccer in America

Twelve months ago Jordan Morris was just another kid at Stanford University. Known only by soccer diehards and Seattle Sounders supporters in the Northwestern part of the United States, Morris was just another 19-year old kid playing college soccer on a scholarship.

In just one year Morris has gone from being an unknown to a highly known quantity. With five appearances with the United States Men’s National Team under his belt and a goal against Mexico, he has become the posterboy for the future of American soccer.

 

It is a big winter for Morris with Stanford looking to claim their first-ever collegiate title, a possible call-up to Jurgen Klinsmann’s side in January, and a decision of whether to stay at Stanford or become a professional all on the docket.

Although it sounds like a slam dunk decision for Morris and many other college players it is not quite as simple as it seems. Up until the past ten years most American soccer players had one choice – go to college and hopefully get drafted by a Major League Soccer team.

Aside from those that could afford to attend US Soccer’s Academy or were fortunate enough to get a look at by a European team, college was the only avenue to a professional career in the game.

That might sound a little maddening to those from Europe but in the United States it is part of the norm. Although there are some exceptions to the rule, most of the professional leagues here in the United States enforce that their players attend college for at least one year.

Leagues like Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, and the National Football League all defer the development to youth players in their sport to private and public universities. When the players are eligible and decide that they want to pursue a professional career they are selected out of a pool of players via a draft.

While this system works for those leagues, for Major League Soccer it puts them at a disadvantage with the rest of the world. MLB, the NBA, the NHL, and the NFL are all of the top leagues in their sport and thus can dictate the rules for other leagues in their sport. Seasoned European basketball players who win EuroBasket are placed in the same draft with eighteen-year old kids who have one year of college experience.

So if the college system is such an onus on MLS why do they continue to use it? The answer is simple: they didn’t want to. When the league was founded the league’s owners opted to go with a North American style of youth development, that is, ask the NCAA to do it. While players like Freddy Adu and DaMarcus Beasley were touted as examples of the great players that youth soccer in the country were developing the truth was that none of the original MLS sides really invested in youth academies.

At the time this system made sense economically. With so many sides barely making ends meet the league could not afford to have a youth academy system like an Arsenal or Manchester United. The low success rate of youth players also probably made owners gun shy about investing in such unknown quantities.

By using the colleges teams MLS clubs could scout potential prospects without investing a single dollar into them. For the players it gives them a chance to show their talents at a relative higher level while helping pay for a college education.

It is also not as if college soccer has been unable to produce quality players. American players such as Brad Friedel (Aston Villa/Tottenham Hotspur), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Claudio Reyna (Manchester City), John Harkes (Sheffield Wednesday) all went through the college system. As did Neven Subotic (Borussia Dortmund,) Vedad Ibisevic (Hertha BSC), Ryan Nelsen (Tottenham Hotspur), and Shaka Hislop (Newcastle/ West Ham United).

But the problem with the system is that it essentially robs the players and the national league of a player’s best years and their highest re-sell value. A college player typically lasts from 18 up to 22-years old, which, in the international transfer market, is the prime period to sell a player.

When an MLS side drafts a player a forward at the age of 22 they are potentially missing out on the opportunity to sell the player at their highest potential value at a later date. Players also miss out on maximizing their earning potential. Yes players like Clint Dempsey have earned European contracts later in their career but only after coming over on a free transfer or at a small value to their club.

This system has changed some in recent years. Every MLS team now has a youth academy system of some form, with some teams placing squads in the United Soccer League, the “third division” of U.S. Soccer, or the National Premier Soccer League, a mostly amateur league. Players like Morris, who came up through the Seattle Sounders Youth Academy system, can go to college and train with their MLS side.

 

The clubs are also given the chance to offer their youth academy players a ‘Homegrown Player’ contract which would make them immune from being drafted when they choose to end their amateur eligibility. The Sounders confirmed this week that they have made Morris a ‘Homegrown Player’ contract to forego his senior season with Stanford which would begin in August 2016.

According to Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl the contract was the largest in MLS history (This was confirmed by Sounders FC President Garth Lagerway in a conference call this week).

The hitch in this system and what makes Morris’ situation so complicated is his amateur status. Although Morris has featured for the U.S. Men’s National Team he is still considered to be an amateur soccer player who cannot profit from any USMNT appearances. He also cannot play for the Seattle Sounders MLS nor their USL side, S2. If he does he will lose his eligibility to play for Stanford University, and more importantly, his college scholarship.

MLS contracts also heavily favor the league as opposed to the player. If Morris were to sign a contract with Sounders FC he would essentially be signing a contract with MLS because the league operates under a single entity structure. His rights, in essence, would be owned by MLS.

If Morris were to sign with Seattle and then be transferred to a European side the Sounders could retain his MLS rights should he ever want to return. All of these things limit his negotiating power and could make Europe all the more enticing.

Whatever decision Morris makes will likely be a good one. San Jose Earthquakes forward Tommy Thompson currently holds the record for largest ‘Homegrown Player’ contract ever at $140,000 a season, so if the Sounders contract is worth more than that he will likely avoid the league minimum of $36,500. Europe or staying an additional season are also not bad options for his career in soccer (Europe) or in lifestyle (Stanford).

But Morris’ situation highlights a major hole in how talent is developed here in the United States. One has to wonder if Morris was born in England if he would have ever gone to college in the first place. He is certainly a better person for going to Stanford and given the lack of certainty in a professional soccer career here in the United States a Stanford degree is a heck of a back-up plan.

The fault isn’t with Morris but rather with MLS and US Soccer who still need the NCAA to develop their players. The NCAA can certainly be an excellent asset in finding players who might have taken a bit longer to develop. But given how international football is structured this should not be the place where the top young American players go to develop.

The MLS academy system has finally started to develop young players that are having a positive impact on the game. But until club sides can develop their own players and can offer players salaries that will allow them to make a professionally living off of the game that will not change.

The NCAA is also to blame, holding a player’s scholarship for ransom while operating a billion dollar feeder system for American professional sports. Morris is not the first athlete who has been forced to decline payment for his work over fear of losing a scholarship and he will not be the last.

The system is flawed but unfortunately with all three parties profiting from it there is no clear long-term solution that can be applied. For players like Morris that means many more years being forced to use the college system in order to pursue soccer.

The Author

Sean Maslin

BPF Columnist, Washington Spirit/D.C. United beat writer and general editor-Prost Amerika, Columnist-Playing for 90. Radio MLS: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/radio-mls/id979377624?mt=2

6 thoughts on “Jordan Morris and the difficult path to playing soccer in America

  1. Very nice article but a couple of things I noticed. 1. Minimum salary is now $60k ($50k for developmental contract) 2. Players can play for USL teams and not lose their amateur status. Development Academy players sign an Amateur Contract and train/play with the team (ie. Sounders 2).

  2. Knowing that fame is fleeting and sports is a gamble, to walk away from a full ride to college to make $60gs may seem short sighted. If you are a player that is clearly going to change the level of a sport, you will be that guy at 18. If you are very good and or pretty good the success rate starts to slide. And then there is injury. So, as much of a fan as I am, are ya feeling lucky, punk?

  3. Morris isn’t that good of a player to have gone straight to MLS so it’s no surprise that he went to Stanford to play arguably low level soccer. If he were that good, he would have been playing on the USMNT at 18 like Altidore or Donovan. He’s gonna be 22 next year and already has reached most of his development peak. He is often invisible in games, like in the Honduras u23 game a couple weeks back. Only reason Klinsmann brought him was for his speed and to shut people up about the youth. Woods is a better player than him as shown by his workrate and goals.

  4. There are 1000’s of European Academy based players that would love to have a chance to go to college. Only a tiny fraction of the academy players go on to play professional football on a regular basis. And when they are ‘done’ footballing, they have very few good job prospects going forward. Our system is far more enviable than this article leads you to believe.

  5. @koolaid “He’s gonna be 22 next year” is a really roundabout way of saying he’s 21 (he just turned 21 last month). And his first Senior Team call up was last year, when he was still 19.

    So not much different from Altidore’s or Donovan’s 18 (I’ll take your word on that).

  6. Okay, I get it you don’t like college soccer. I don’t watch much of it even if a local team gets in during tournament time and I don’t like the compressed schedule in the later part of the year and the substitutions, but I find value in developing 18-22 year old young adults that aren’t professionals. As I read it, it seems your ideal method is that development at this age should be at professional teams, and I agree with this to an extent, but given that MLS, NASL, and USL-Pro barely hit the 50s in first teams across such a huge landscape and there’s bound to be undiscovered gems that is yet to be developed. Morris and Yedlin, two of the youngest on the national team that are US high school graduates (I am excluding the young Germany based players) played college soccer.

    Worse is that only the MLS teams for certain have academies and not even half of them have B teams. Dallas is getting a lot of deserved credit for their youth, but as an early adopter of signing their academy players to pro contracts, they discovered that signing youngsters early doesn’t help their development unless they can play immediately on their first team and as of now, the team lacks a B team, as their first six homegrowns aren’t even on their team.
    http://www.thebentmusket.com/revolution-commentary/2015/5/11/8557495/revolution-homegrown-player-sign-zachary-herivaux-diego-fagundez-scott-caldwell
    At least now, with the B teams, these young players get valuable playing time and as MLS academies enroll younger and younger age groups, it will still take years for the best of these players to pan out.

    You wonder if Morris would play college soccer if he was English. Well, I guess that would be dependent on how good he was at age 16 or 17 if he would turn pro at his club or catch on at another one. Maybe he would or maybe he wouldn’t. I’m not sure. I am unsure where the transition is from pro to semi-pro in the English soccer ladder, but the whole country is 5000 square miles larger than the size of the state of Pennsylvania and the US likely will never match the concentration of pro teams where young adults can play on first teams or reserve teams in England.

    MLS academies cost 1M yearly and B teams cost another 1M and while I envision every MLS team will have a B team in three seasons, The cost isn’t insignificant since the salary cap is 3.5M. I can’t pin down a year when every NASL or USL Pro team will have a B team. College soccer there isn’t what it is here at the D1 program level and with the lack of such pro teams, no matter how many or how few pro teams exist in the US, college soccer has over 800 mens programs (NCAA 1-3, more if you count NAIA and JCs) to provide some soccer development for 18-22 year olds and it is folly to ignore the existing soccer infrastructure in this country or comparing it to other countries with so much more soccer infrastructure at the professional and semi-professional level for those between 0-20 years old.

    Some other issues in the article:
    A large number of MLB and NHL draftees are high school seniors and some of the most attractive NBA prospects are labeled as one and dones. So fully depending on college programs is not the sole North American way of development.

    The ages between 18-22 are not a player’s prime years or the best time to sell unless you know for certain the player will have a career trajectory like Michael Owen.

    Players don’t necessarily miss out on their income potential. Dempsey couldn’t have qualified for a work permit out of Furman and a team with lesser foreigner demands could have signed him they wanted too. The truth is he needed the league for visibility.

    Please inform me which MLS team has a squad in the NPSL.

    While academy members can be offered homegrown contracts, once they graduate high school, they must meet certain training demands to continue homegrown eligibility. So if they are not interested in this, opting out is quite simple.

    The college scholarship is the very last concern. I’m not going to pretend to be him and say how important the Cardinal soccer program, or classes, or college life is to him, but his father has been the team doctor of the Sounders for years and his family is not going to be worried about getting one of the 10 scholarships or portions of a scholarship that D1 soccer programs can give.

    Morris is free to sign today with a team in Europe if he wanted to and Seattle only retains his MLS rights (should they sign him) if he leaves on a free transfer. What is problematic is if he gets sold and then wishes to return home years later. But he was offered the richest homegrown contract and I fail to see how his negotiating power is restricted. One could say that the longer he stays in school, European teams will wonder why he hasn’t turned pro yet. Or if he falls out of favor on the National Team. The league has to approve of every contract, so there are limits but the Sounders have a relationship with the family, wherever Morris turns pro at, it’ll be under conditions that will make him happy.

    It is debatable whether going to college (as opposed to turning pro at a previous age) has made him a better person.

    The MLS minimum salary is 60k, which is sufficient to live off of.
    http://www.espnfc.us/major-league-soccer/19/blog/post/2334054/how-major-league-soccer-owners-and-players-agreed-a-cba-avoided-a-strike

    The NCAA does show its hypocrisy in accumulating such high broadcasting and marketing fees through its student athletes for the revenue producing sports (football and men’s basketball) while providing little more than scholarships while prohibiting them from getting jobs and so I’m guessing demands from the soccer players who number around 30 on the roster who also share 10 scholarships are not overly demanding, but no one is forcing them to play college soccer, which is lessening in significance yearly as the academy system gets older. As it is, so few of US 16-18 year olds turn pro. But Morris can turn pro when the season ends if he wanted to and so he is the worst example of someone forced to play college soccer in order to turn pro.

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