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The WTR Top 20, No. 5: Justin Morrow’s redemption was sweet in 2017

The highest-scoring “defender” in MLS had a career year on the left side.

Soccer- MLS Championship Match Toronto FC v Seattle Sounders FC Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

“My disappointment at how 2016 ended fuels me every day.”

That quote from Justin Morrow sums up his 2017 season quite nicely. Prior to the start of last season, Morrow provided an honest and intimate redemption blog that is worthy of another read.

Redemption. That word was used quite a bit last year. But, in Morrow’s case, there really wasn’t anything to “redeem”. Sure, he hit the crossbar during the penalty shootout. But that miss didn’t cost Toronto the MLS Cup. Before Justin stepped to the spot, his entire team had failed to score after 120 minutes of play, his team’s MVP was forced to leave the game due to cramps, and his exhausted captain made a feeble attempt at his penalty kick. Yet, Morrow felt responsible for the loss, and was determined to have a better 2017.

As we all know, that mission was accomplished — both from a team standpoint as well as an individual standpoint. With eight goals on the year, Morrow scored twice as many as the next nearest MLS defender (Vancouver’s Kendall Watson had four).

He became the first defender since 1997 to record a hat trick during an MLS regular season game, he was nominated for MLS’s 2017 Defender of the Year award, and he was a member of the Gold Cup-winning U.S. men’s national team.

Of all these accolades, the most curious is his Defender of the Year nomination. Morrow’s 2017 defensive stats were no better than in previous years. In fact, he did not achieve his personal best in any of the key defensive statistics (tackles, blocks, interceptions, clearances). But he did set career highs in shots per game, dribbles per game, passes per game, passing accuracy and, of course, goals.

Much like the NHL, a two-way defender enjoys a remarkable celebrity status in MLS. However, without a ‘steady-eddy’ at the back, there would be limited offensive chances for any crusading rearguard. Morrow repeatedly acknowledged this during the season, offering that he was very fortunate to have Chris Mavinga, Drew Moor and Michael Bradley to cover his back. Clearly, the security provided by these three allowed him to venture further up field and capitalize on balls in the opposition’s end. All but two of his goals were scored from within the opposition’s six-yard box – that’s how far up field he routinely traveled.

SOCCER: DEC 09 MLS Cup Final - Seattle Sounders at Toronto FC Photo by Jeff Chevrier/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Even with teammates like the ones mentioned above, TFC’s current roster places a significant amount of pressure on Morrow’s shoulders. With the departure of Raheem Edwards, Morrow is now the only left-footed player patrolling the left wing. Be it as a wingback or as a straight midfielder, there is no one else.

Some may argue that the only other starting left foot, Chris Mavinga, could replace Morrow in times of need. Mavinga, however, has emphatically stated his desire to play nowhere other than his current position. It was left centre-back that rekindled Mavinga’s infectious love for the game. It is where he thrives (when he doesn’t wander too far), and it is where he wants to stay.

As much as we would like to believe that Ashtone Morgan is the answer, he isn’t. Not at the level that TFC now requires.

Perhaps Jonathan Osorio will step up and routinely play the left side in a midfield diamond. But, he is not left-footed and, consequently, he tends to play more of a central role. At times, he even drifts too far to the right, leaving Victor Vazquez to plug the void along the left flank. Without another true left wingback or left midfielder, Morrow is in a very difficult situation: Toronto’s vulnerability and lack of depth on the left side puts the focus squarely on Justin each and every game.

This leads us to his key development point for 2018: consistency.

As good as he was defensively, and as great as he was offensively, Morrow was prone to periods where he was relatively unproductive — the most recent being the 2017 playoffs. Morrow played all but six minutes of the post-season and was all but invisible for most of that time. He did not register a single shot on goal, let alone score. He did not record any assists. He averaged a mediocre pass completion rating of 71%, while winning only 0.4 tackles per match, averaging only 0.4 blocks per match and 1.0 defensive interceptions per game.

Even his defensive interceptions (his best stat of the bunch) were offset by the 0.8 times per game that he was dispossessed. These numbers are shockingly poor for his standard, and they’re certainly not what we have come to expect from such a talented player. But, throughout 2017, Morrow experienced several of these valleys. Obviously, he countered these with several periods of peak performance. However, the potential for eight more games due to Champions League, after the shortest off-season in team history, coupled with the current roster situation, screams for a more balanced contribution from all positions.

Toronto FC play the Montreal Impact on the day they are awarded the Supporters Shield Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

More than his goals, Morrow’s hallmark was (and is) the distance that he covers. His engine allows him to race down the wing in search of a moment of greatness, and then race back to help impede the offensive progress of the opposition. It is his training as a track athlete, and his natural affinity for running, that has primed him for his current role.

But, his role is very demanding; a role that few have been able to sustain well into their thirties. Morrow is currently right on thirty years of age. Like a lot of Toronto’s star players, his remaining active shelf life at the top of his game is probably three to four years, certainly no more than that. Naturally, not just for Morrow’s sake, the time to win is now.

Last year was a grand start to a tradition of excellence, and it also eliminated any potential ambiguity for 2018. This season, for Morrow and the team, the pressure is on to repeat, rather than to redeem.