From the middle of June through the middle of August, he was one of the best wing-backs in the league, if not the best. There was talk of him starting for the U.S. men’s national team and the talk was real, and well deserved. But a few mediocre performances later, that talk subsided.
Then mid-September arrived, and he thrilled the Toronto FC faithful with more best-in-league performances. Again, this only lasted for a few weeks. As October set in, so too did the mediocrity. That mediocrity lasted through the MLS Cup final.
So, what does 2017 hold for Justin Morrow? Hopefully, more consistency.
During his periods of brilliance, Morrow was a pleasure to watch in 2016. Observing him live at BMO Field was a study in how to play the position. He rarely missed his own assignments. He covered for his teammates. He flowed with the play. He picked his spots. Boy, did he pick his spots! Perfectly timed runs put him in the right place at the right time. His four goals during that timeframe were all key; three game-tying and one game-winning. Morrow was every bit the MLS-level epitome of one of his favourite players, Dani Alves.
One of the biggest reasons for his success was the diamond formation, along with his inherent skill. The tight diamond midfield created a large void down the left flank. Morrow owned that space, and relished the freedom that it provided. He used his speed, strength and vision to thwart attacks and capitalize on opponents’ mistakes. Given an opportunity like that, a player of lesser skill would not have been able to shine the way that he did.
But, late in the season, and through the playoffs, TFC changed the system. The switch to the 3-5-2 formation (or 5-3-2 to some) hurt Morrow’s performances. There wasn’t nearly as much space or freedom for him to exploit. He seemed hemmed-in against the touchline. His lack of movement meant that he never got into the rhythm of the game. At times, he seemed to lack the ability to make timely decisions, confused as to whether to drop back or push ahead. The overlapping runs of the summer and mid-September were a distant memory. He was playing so far to the side that there simply wasn’t anyone, or any room, to overlap.
His detractors will point to the period of mid-August to mid-September, as well as the last month of the regular season, as proof that Morrow’s drop in performance was not solely due to the change in formation. During those periods, the diamond was still employed and Morrow wasn’t hurt. So, why the lack of offensive production and missed assignments? No crazy excuses, here - just facts.
Over the past two seasons, Morrow has definitely suffered from bouts of ineffectiveness and streaky play. In 2015, he was tremendous from the middle of May to the middle of July. For the rest of the year, though, he was relatively mediocre. No one can identify why certain players ebb and flow the way that they do. Sports psychologists are rich because of it.
In the case of Morrow, however, history has shown that he can play with consistent intensity and focus. Look no further than two seasons ago. This very website rewarded him for his consistent play in 2014 with its nod as TFC’s most valuable player – ahead of ‘bloody-big-dealers’ Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley. So, why the consistency in 2014? An argument to consider is that, during that season, he had one role to focus on: defence. Pure and simple. He was a full-back, not a wing-back.
If a singular role helps to improve his consistency, then Morrow’s performance should be more reliable this year. Assuming newly acquired left-sided centre-back Chris Mavinga lives up to his on-field potential, Morrow should be able to concentrate on offence. Pure and simple. In the 3-5-2, Bradley can cover missed assignments through the centre and push Mavinga more to the left, mitigating the need for Morrow to be looking over his shoulder. Morrow’s new ‘office’ will be the middle and final thirds of the pitch. He should be able to trust that the left half of the backline is secured by the combined efforts of Mavinga, Bradley and Drew Moor. His role, therefore, will be that of a left winger, rather than a wing-back.
This is a big change for any player, let alone one that has played defence all of his professional career. But given that TFC does not have a bonafide No. 10 in midfield, and given that opposing teams will be concentrating on Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore through the middle, the onus will be on Morrow to add to Toronto’s attack. Specifically, he needs to figure out how to identify the opportune moments to come off the touch line and attack through the left-central part of the field and the times when he needs to work the flank to produce either a timely give-and-go or a strong cross into the box.
This will take time to perfect, and the fan base needs to be patient through the first 10 games of the season. Morrow is a smart player, and he will figure it out. His 109 career appearances for TFC (third on the club’s all-time list) demonstrate that he will succeed.
Early indicators show that he is trending in the right direction. Playing only 30 minutes per game, albeit against weaker opposition, Morrow had a goal and an assist through his first four preseason appearances. He’s not setting the world on fire, but it’s a promising start.