TORONTO – A broad smile crosses Justin Morrow’s face as he talks to a reporter while leaning against a wall at Toronto FC’s training facility.
He knows the question is coming. He’s actually surprised it took so long for the interviewer to ask it. And he expects to have to answer it several more times this week in the buildup to Saturday’s MLS Cup final between TFC and the Seattle Sounders at BMO Field.
Do you ever replay the penalty miss in your mind?
“No. I’ve completely moved on from it,” Morrow told Sportsnet.
Morrow had Stefan Frei at his mercy in last year’s MLS Cup final at BMO Field – he had the Seattle Sounders goalkeeper beat in the shootout. The TFC defender forcefully drove his penalty attempt straight down the middle. Frei guessed wrong, diving to his left. But while Morrow’s shot was hit with plenty of purchase, it wasn’t delivered with pinpoint precision, and it clattered off the crossbar. Seattle’s Roman Torres stepped up moments later, sending his shot past TFC goalkeeper Clint Irwin, and the Sounders ended up winning the MLS Cup.
A few days after the game, as TFC players cleaned out their lockers and talked to local reporters one last time before heading off on holidays, Morrow spoke with a cool detachment about the penalty miss. Maybe the pain was still too raw, but it was obvious he didn’t want to delve into it.
Twelve months on, Morrow is in a different place. He’s coming off a career season in which he scored a personal-best eight goals, was a finalist for MLS defender of the year and was named to the league’s Best XI, alongside teammates Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez. He also earned a recall to the United States national team after four years, playing for the Stars and Stripes at the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
So, a lot has gone right this year for Morrow, who has been one of the Reds’ most consistent and reliable players since coming to Toronto in 2014. As for the penalty miss in last year’s MLS Cup, he maintains that’s ancient history.
“It’s a story, which I get, so people are going to ask me about it all this week again. That’s fine. I don’t have a problem with it. I understand [the media has] a job to do. But honestly, I’m past it. The only time I think about it is when you guys bring it up,” Morrow quipped.
He admits it did take some time to get over it, though.
“It took, probably, until right around New Year’s, which was when I started to get back into working out and training. I took some time off to go on vacation after MLS Cup and be with my family, but once I got back into the swing of things, I was past it,” Morrrow admitted.
“What helped was that I realized that getting to MLS Cup wasn’t a one off. I realized we’re going to have a chance at it again because we have a good team, so it didn’t feel as much like a failure knowing we’d likely get another crack at it.
What also helped Morrow was a one-on-one talk he had with TFC coach Greg Vanney in the days after the dust settled on MLS Cup. Vanney took a number of penalties during his playing career, so he sympathized with what Morrow was going through.
“I was the penalty kick taker for a lot of teams I played for, and I’ve missed my fair share. So, for me, it was sharing my experiences with him, but you move on. The true sign of a guy who can move on is the guy who steps up and takes [a penalty] the next time he as a chance,” Vanney said.
What’s been especially impressive about Morrow during his time in Toronto is that he has taken a step forward each season, getting better and improving upon the previous campaign. Whether he’s been deployed as a fullback, a wingback or, even on occasion as a centre-back, he’s handled the assignment with aplomb. Today, he’s one of TFC’s important players.
He also admits to making “huge growth” since last year’s MLS Cup, and the penalty miss, taking stock of himself and committing to being better in all aspects of his life, both on and off the pitch.
“I think I’m better on the field, better at making decisions, better technically, passing and shooting – everything in that sense. Mentality wise, I’ve grown as well and embraces the role of being one of the veteran players here,” Morrow admitted
“Missing [the penalty] in the final made me grow up a little more, it hardened me up a bit. I’ve definitely grown more in the past year.”
If Saturday’s game goes to another penalty shootout, Vanney suspects Morrow wouldn’t hesitate to volunteer to take one.
“For the last year, after training now and again, he’ll stick around and start hitting penalties. I suspect, and hopefully it won’t get to that point, but if it does that Justin will be one of the guys who raises his hand. He has that kind of confidence and belief in himself,” Vanney said.