Morrow emerging as unsung hero for Toronto FC
Toronto FC defender Justin Morrow, right, eyes the ball next to Columbus Crew midfielder Ethan Finlay, left, during first half MLS soccer action in Toronto on Saturday, May 31, 2014. (The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette)
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, July 10, 2014 6:04PM EDT
TORONTO -- Justin Morrow may not get the headlines of some of his higher-profile teammates but the Toronto FC left fullback -- like his right-side counterpart Mark Bloom -- gets high grades from his coaches for consistency.
Bloom has started all 14 games this season for Toronto (6-5-3) while Morrow has started 13 -- he came on as a substitute in the other after attending the funeral of his grandmother.
"Consistency is key in that position," says Toronto manager Ryan Nelsen. "It's spitting out seven outs of 10s (ratings every game). Not nines and fours. Just throw (sevens) out week in, week out.
"Those players fly under the radar of the general public but for me and the coaching staff they're like gold."
Bloom, whose pay is listed at US$48,835 this season, took over at right fullback late last year after Toronto decided that popular incumbent Richard Eckersley was surplus to requirements due to his high salary. Now a New York Red Bull, Eckersley ($373,333) has made four starts in 2014.
Morrow, whose salary is listed at $169,562 by the MLS Players Union, came over in a mid-December trade that saw Toronto send allocation money to San Jose.
The five-foot-nine, 165 pounder -- a young veteran at 26 -- instantly added MLS experience to the Toronto roster, with 73 appearances for the Quakes.
"He's been very good," said Nelsen. "He's come in, he's a North American kid who knows the league, knows what the league's about. Lovely age. He's athletic, he's good on the ball. He just brings something that we needed in that position. Just as Mark Bloom is doing on the other side.
"Those guys are so important to your squad. Stable men. Guys that you know that even if soccer goes away, they're going to be successful in what they do. They're to be good employees of any job. They're stable human beings. And in this industry, they're rare."
Toronto has benefited from a stable backline this season with captain Steven Caldwell a fixture at centre back alongside either Doneil Henry or rookie Nick Hagglund. Toronto is averaging 1.29 goals against a game, which ranks seventh in the league.
"Consistency is a huge part to success and all of us have been able to gel together, whether it's been Nick or Doneil in there," said the soft-spoken Morrow, who played a little centre back himself in San Jose when the Quakes had a glut of injuries.
Morrow, who grew up as a more attacking player and was a wide midfielder for most of his collegiate career at the University of Notre Dame, describes himself as a tenacious, hard-working and versatile player who likes to take part in attacks.
"I think more importantly now becoming a veteran, I would say I'm a reliable player. And that's the thing that I'm focusing on this year and that's what I want to show most in my game. Those types of players, maybe they don't get the headlines but they make a good team."
Morrow, an all-star in 2012, has earned one cap for the United States, playing in a 0-0 friendly with Canada in Houston in January 2013. He also was on the bench for FIFA World Cup qualifying matches against Costa Rica and Mexico in March.
After making 89 appearances for the Fighting Irish, Morrow was taken in the second round (28th overall) of the 2010 MLS SuperDraft by the Quakes. Morrow enjoyed his time as San Jose under Frank Yallop, calling the personable Canadian coach (now with Chicago) "almost a mentor."
His game flourished on the West Coast.
But Yallop and the Quakes parted ways in June 2013. And Morrow's playing time suffered as San Jose went from a Supporters' Shield season in 2012 with a 19-6-9 record to missing the playoffs in 2013 at 14-11-9.
"Things happen when you have a poor season as team. People fall out of favour and what not," he said. "It was important to me to play, first of all. And then I was getting married so I wanted my new family to be happy wherever we were going to be at."
That has happened in Toronto.
Morrow and his Paraguayan wife Jimena -- they met at Notre Dame and married last December -- have enjoyed life on and off the field in Toronto.
"It's been great getting to know the city," said Morrow, a Cleveland native who studied finance and Spanish at university. "The team has just been incredibly accommodating with everything. They've helped with the transition a lot. I'm living right downtown, so I love that. That was something that I didn't get in San Jose.
"I love the diversity in the city, watching the World Cup and seeing everyone with their different jerseys on and the flags on the cars. I think that's really unique. You don't get that in a lot of different cities. So that's been impressive. I've just been enjoying it a lot right now."
He also enjoys anonymity.
"I haven't had anyone recognize me," he said with a laugh. "Maybe if I was Jermain (Defoe)."
Morrow speaks Spanish but the language is English at home. Still the language skills come in handy with his in-laws and some of his teammates.
Morrow admits that Toronto FC used to have a "little stigma around it, with all the change and inconsistency that's been there."
"Coaches in and out, players in and out. That was the thing that scared me the most because you want some consistency, not only as a player but just as a person in life. You want to know where you're going to live at in six months, you want to know 'Can I sign this lease?' Whatever it might be.
"But I think the club's done a tremendous job in changing that culture and getting people in here that are going to be here for the long-term and be consistent."
Morrow is proud of his new club, saying he loves to show off Toronto's swanky training centre to family and friends.
"It makes me feel even more professional. I think about it every morning when I wake up, how incredible it is to come to facilities like this."
He also appreciate the city vista behind BMO Field, saying many other MLS teams can't boast such iconic backdrops. Although he acknowledges he really only sees it when he rewatches games.
"It's just beautiful," he said. "Those are things, as a player you don't get to appreciate all the time because you're in the field and you're so in the moment. You're not even looking up in the stands. Half the time I don't even see how full it is, I just hear it."