TORONTO – Justin Morrow had Stefan Frei at his mercy. He had the Seattle Sounders goalkeeper beat.
The Toronto FC defender’s penalty attempt was hit forcefully 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.
Roman Torres stepped up moments later, sending his shot past TFC goalkeeper Clint Irwin, and the Sounders ending up winning the 2016 MLS Cup final at BMO Field.
A few days later, 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.
Since then, he has opened up and expressed his emotions about that cold winter night at BMO Field, writing a blog shortly after the MLS Cup final in which he laid everything bare.
“Under Armour was having a campaign, and it was called ‘Why I’ and they had their athletes talk about things they might do in the off-season, or other sports they might play. They asked me to do it, but I didn’t really want to write about that—I wanted to write about what my mindset [over the penalty miss] was at that time,” Morrow told Sportsnet ahead of Saturday’s road game against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
“It was cathartic for me, in the sense that I could use that to get my emotions out there and move past it.”
Morrow took the odd penalty in college, but the MLS Cup final was his first as a professional. That didn’t stop him from raising his hand when coach Greg Vanney was looking for volunteers for the shootout.
“I just thought that after the first five [shooters] it was going to come down to one of the players out there, and I just thought, ‘Why not me?’ So, I stepped up and took it,” Morrow explained.
Morrow said writing the blog helped him work things out and to put the penalty miss behind him.
“I wrote about it in the blog—in my life, I like to look forward and use everything as a growing experience and a chance to learn, and I learned from that miss,” Morrow admitted.
Having missed a few penalties in the MLS playoffs during his playing days, Vanney related to what Morrow was going through, and he made it a point to sit down with the defender and talk to him about it after a few days had gone by.
“Honestly, I told him I’d been there a couple of times. Not necessarily in MLS Cup, though I lost a few in overtime. Two playoff series I hit one off the inside of the post, it goes across the goal and didn’t go in, and we ended up losing both of those series. I’d been there before,” Vanney said.
“I wanted to make sure he could release it and let it go. We didn’t lose the [game] because of that PK. We didn’t finish chances that we should have finished in the game, and we should have taken care of them in the run of the game. I wanted to make sure that Justin could free his mind, and use it as motivation for this year.”
Morrow clearly took Vanney’s message to heart. TFC’s coach has noticed that the left fullback has already come very close to recapturing his top form from a year ago just two games into the current season.
“I can see it when he came into pre-season, his motivation. Of all of our guys, I think he’s starting probably as close to how he finished [in 2016] as any of them,” Vanney stated.
Morrow had a career year in 2016, scoring a personal-best five goals and adding four assists. He’s been one the Reds most consistent starters through the first two games of the campaign, playing a full 180 minutes and scoring in last week’s 2-2 draw away to the Philadelphia Union.
Morrow has also continued to show that aggressive, attacking attitude that he seemed to pick up last season, according to Vanney.
“He’s been like that [since the start of] pre-season. There was something mid-season last year where he started being real aggressive, which is something we’ve always encouraged—to be very aggressive, especially in the attacking end, and find his moments. He started getting assists and goals, and that builds your confidence. Now we’re seeing a lot of that. A lot of his mindset is how can he find the right moments to impact the game from an attacking standpoint,” Vanney said.