Analysis

Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan: A partnership to build a team around

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The bond between Seattle's two young talents goes beyond being teammates. As Richard Farley notes, Morris and Roldan's friendship is only part of the pair's promising future.

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SEATTLE – The Seattle Sounders’ most lopsided victory of the season was also a rare one, to that point in time. The team came into the match having won one of its previous nine games, but on that July night at CenturyLink Field, the Sounders exploded, posting five goals on a second-choice Dallas side to best their goal total from that 1-1-7 slump.

Afterward, two of the game’s goalscorers, Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan, exchanged an inside joke outside their lockers. It was the type of levity that had been too rare among Seattle’s losses, but before Morris turned, faced the press, and began answering questions, a little of the friendship the two have developed was allowed to leak out.

It was an innocuous pleasantry, but it’s one that’s become more prominent as the season has gone on: Morris and Roldan, the two most important pieces of the Sounders’ next generation, hinting at something that goes beyond teammates’ regard to being actual friends.  Nine months apart in age, the duo is forming a tie that could become the backbone of Seattle’s next core.

Two top-24s, in tandem

This week, both talents were honored with placed on Major League Soccer’s annual 24 Under 24 countdown. Roldan, 21, claimed the list’s final spot, while Morris, the older (21 for another month) ranked only behind Orlando’s Cyle Larin and New York City FC’s Jack Harrison.

Over the past month, the bond between the two has become obvious beyond the locker room. Last week, Roldan dropping in on one of Morris’ public appearances, showing up with his friend’s No. 13 jersey to, as if he was any other fan, ask for an autograph. “They say your heroes aren’t approachable,” Roldan joked on Twitter, posting four pictures of the sarcastic encounter.

It’s not the only recent event to which Roldan’s accompanied Morris. As the U.S. international threw out the first pitch at a recent Seattle Mariners game, Roldan was in attendance, on the field, accompanying the Stanford product just as a family member would. In fact, Morris’ family was there, too.

Dan Poss / Sounders FC

Dan Poss / Sounders FC

Unique enough to be subtext to a team captain’s joke, ‘Jostian’ may seem like an obvious pairing: Two West Coast kids, so close in age, both products of Seattle youth and NCAA soccer, who are now being relied on to inject some youth into an aging squad. By three years, they’re the youngest among Seattle’s regulars, but by role, they’re among the team’s most important. In the face of Obafemi Martins’ departure and Clint Dempsey’s struggles, Morris’ goalscoring has gone from preseason luxury to midseason necessity, while Roldan’s versatility in the middle of the park has proven the team’s best complement to Osvaldo Alonso.

What they are right now, though, may be the least important part of Morris and Roldan’s profiles. Though Seattle’s postseason hopes require each to maintain his respective level, the big payoff will be in the years to come: once Dempsey, Alonso and Brad Evans transition out; once each are in fully in their playing primes.

Considering future Roldan

Roldan’s future is a little harder to project than Morris’, if only because he is so versatile. Though he’s settled into being a shuttling complement to the mostly-sitting Alonso, Roldan’s days at the University of Washington saw him play a more attacking role. There’s little indication, yet, that such a threatening game will emerge at the MLS level, but in the big picture, these are early days for Roldan. The former Huskie, who’s twice appeared for the U.S. Under-20s (but is also to eligible play for Guatemala and El Salvador), has only made 33 Major League Soccer starts. Unfortunately, he only has two assists in 3266 minutes, albeit with three goals.

To the eye, though, Roldan seems to have room to grow. A pass rate this season of 83.1 percent (on 45.9 passes per game) reinforces the idea, as does the subservient, destined-to-change role he often assumes next to Alonso.

Perhaps he doesn’t have the skillset to be a Javier Morales or Mauro Diaz-esque creator, but his versatility, intelligence and reliability could put him on a Sacha Kljestan-type of curve. As Kljestan went from a sitter at Anderlecht to a string-puller in New York (albeit at an older age), so might Roldan incrementally develop. His likely future may be a near-All-Star No. 8, but toward the end of his prime, if he puts together all the skills his versatility will develop, Roldan could reach a higher ceiling than we see right now.

The path for Jordan Morris

Morris, of course, has been touted with a high ceiling ever since he broke into the senior national team as a collegiate, but over the first half of the season, as Seattle struggled to its establish its personality going forward, that upper limit seemed much lower. Already almost 22, Morris often looked like a player whose ceiling was a type of super-Chris Wondolowski – an excellent player (especially without a ‘Houston: The Lost Years’ stretch on his resume), but one who’d fall short of many people’s international superstar hopes.

Any projection as an international star still does Morris a disservice, but now with 10 goals through his first 26 league games, he also has shown a broader skillset  (with more potential) than “Wondo.”

Since Brian Schmetzer inherited Seattle’s helm from Sigi Schmid, Morris has seen more and more time as a pure No. 9, and in the moments the vision of Nicolas Lodeiro has been able to put him into space, we’ve seen a determination that’s been able to consistently trouble defenses. Technically and physically, Morris may not have any true grade-A qualities, but his profile of no weakness (forget notions of a weak left foot) may be complemented by an elite mentality. The pure determination he shows when he goes wide, collects a ball, then single-handedly creates a chance hints at a psychology that can maximize his talks.

That may mean a lower ceiling than somebody with huge, innate talents, but it also makes for an incredibly high floor. Morris’ maturity makes it far less likely he’ll fail to live up to his potential.

To that end, it’s almost impossible not to see Morris becoming a consistent mid-to-high teens MLS goal-scorer. If the shooters’ luck breaks his way, he’ll win scoring titles, and as Seattle’s core talent changes, he could easily develop into a focal point out in transition, one that can play reliably, connect with wide players before exploiting space in the penalty area. It’s a skill Dempsey and Wondolowski have mastered. Ultimately, Morris’ ceiling should land squarely between the two.

The jewels of Seattle

Consider what this means for the Sounders, then look across Major League Soccer and compare those assets to everybody else. How many teams have a scorer of Morris’ potential who, unlike Larin (who wants to go to Europe at some point), is likely to be around for the multiple years into the future? And how many teams have a 21-year-old midfielder who, having won a starting spot, has a number of ways he can still improve?

It’s on Seattle to make sure the pair’s development continues, something that makes the front office’s choice of head coach even more important. On the list of priorities the team will have in evaluating that position, though, Morris and Roldan’s growth should be near the top. Having talented players that play beyond their cap hits is how Major League Soccer teams can maximize their resources. Doing so while having Seattle’s enviable financial power could make a ‘Jostian’-led group into a dominant core.

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Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.