Toronto FC’s Justin Morrow excelling despite debate over his position

Toronto FC defender Justin Morrow, right, controls the ball as New York Red Bulls defender Michael Murillo defends during the second half of an MLS Eastern Conference semifinal soccer match Monday, Oct. 30, 2017, in Harrison, N.J. Toronto FC won 2-1. (Bill Kostroun/AP)

TORONTO – While pundits and fans might question what Justin Morrow’s position is exactly, the Toronto FC star has no doubts himself.

Morrow finished second in voting for the MLS defender of the year award last week, losing out to Sporting Kansas City’s Ike Opara. It was the first such nomination for Morrow, who has spent the majority of his eight MLS seasons deployed as a fullback on the left side of both the San Jose Earthquakes’ and TFC’s defence.

Ever since coach Greg Vanney switched to his now-preferred 3-5-2 formation last year, Morrow has mostly been used as a wingback higher up the field. The Cleveland native has handled the new assignment with aplomb – he remains one of TFC’s most consistent defensive performers, and he chipped in with a career-high eight goals this season, tied with Victor Vazquez for third in team scoring.

His nomination for the defender of the year award sparked an interesting debate on social media as to whether or not wingbacks should even be in consideration for the honour.

Are wingbacks true defenders? Should Morrow have been put into the same category as defender of the year finalists Opara and Kendall Waston of the Vancouver Whitecaps, both of them traditional centre backs?

To be sure, Morrow’s eight goals this campaign were a major reason why he was nominated for the award. But they weren’t the only factor – as influential and an astute attacker as he has been for the Reds, he was also a key contributor to a TFC defence that conceded just 37 goals in 2017, second-lowest in MLS.

“The position I’ve been playing recently has involved attacking and defending. I’ve had success this year attacking, but I’ve always considered myself a defender first. I pride myself on my defensive work rate, my defensive stability that I bring the team,” Morrow said.

Vanney, a defender of some repute in MLS during his playing days, argues that Morrow’s candidacy for defender of the year was warranted – that wingbacks don’t just bomb forward down the flanks; they also have to do quite a bit of defending. Morrow fulfilled both his defensive and attacking responsibilities this season with great consistency.

“There’s some debate whether [wingbacks are] actually midfielders – are they defenders? What is their actual role? … To me, that’s one of the ways [Morrow] ended up in the defender of the year finalist category, because his ability to do both roles has been extraordinary,” Vanney offered.

“Obviously, the goals really set him apart [from the other finalists] … but at the end of the day you have to be a good defender to even be in the discussion, and J-Mo has proven that.”

That Opara beat out Morrow to win the honour wasn’t a major surprise.

Opara had a breakout campaign this year, quarterbacking a Kansas City defence that conceded a league-low 29 goals, the fewest allowed in a single MLS season since 2012.

After suffering back-to-back injury-riddled seasons, Opara rebounded in 2017 to record a career high in games played (30), games started (30) and minutes played (2,700). He also scored three goals.

Morrow and Opara were teammates from 2010-13 in San Jose. They were both drafted by the Earthquakes in 2010 – Opara was a third-overall pick, while Morrow went in the second round – and became close friends during their time together.

“Ike, I played with him for a long time and we’re still good friends. We chat all the time. He’s had an unbelievable comeback. He’s been knocked down so many times [due to injuries], so I wasn’t sad to lose it to him at all. I’m very happy for him,” Morrow admitted.

As for the immediate future, Morrow is gearing up for the Eastern Conference finals. The Columbus Crew will host TFC in the first leg next Tuesday, with the return match scheduled for Nov. 29 at BMO Field. The Crew were unbeaten in their final 10 matches of the regular season (with six wins) and carried that momentum over into the playoffs where they posted upsets over Atlanta United and New York City FC.

The balancing act between defending and attacking that Morrow will have to perform in Ohio will be even more important considering the stakes involved and the fact that the Reds will be on the road.

“In the first leg in Columbus, you don’t want to give anything away, especially with the way they’ve been playing, their momentum. With their style of attacking football, they’re going to create chances. I need to be conservative in that sense. At the same time, we have to move forward so if I can get up the field and help, I’ll try to find my moments,” Morrow explained.

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