Ashtone Morgan: From teenager to TFC elder statesman

Ashtone-Morgan

Ashtone Morgan, right, in action for Toronto FC. (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO – Even though it lost last year’s MLS Cup, Toronto FC firmly established itself as one of Major League Soccer’s model franchises with its runs to the final.

How times have changed. It wasn’t that long ago TFC was the laughingstock of MLS. Losing season after losing season, and mismanagement by MLSE led to a culture of dysfunction within the organization, highlighted by the constant turnover of coaches, club officials and players. Through all of the changes, there has been one constant. One player who lived through the dark days when TFC hit rock bottom, and who had an intimate view as the Reds came so close to winning the MLS Cup.

Ashtone Morgan is Toronto FC’s longest serving player, having made his debut on Oct. 20, 2010 in the CONCACAF Champions League against Panamanian outfit Arabe Unido. Only 19 at the time, the left fullback was still with TFC’s youth academy, and only signed with the senior team a few months later, making his first MLS appearance on March 17, 2011. Since then, he’s played in 123 games in all competitions, and is one of only two players (fellow Toronto native Jonathan Osorio is the other) to reach the 100-match plateau for the Reds.

Players have come and gone at Toronto FC over the years, including Canadians Doneil Henry, Will Johnson and, most recently, Mo Babouli and Quillan Roberts. But Morgan has remained, and now in his seventh season with TFC, he feels bound by a sense of duty to his former Canadian teammates, many of whom he considers close friends.

“They stay with me. A few are still around. Many have gone, but even though we’re not playing together they always remind me I’ve been here the longest. In a sense, I’m almost doing it for them and not myself – there were a lot of Canadians who were once here that are gone, and I feel like I’m representing them,” Morgan told Sportsnet in a one-on-one chat.

“From seven years ago to now, it’s been a ride. It’s been a ride.”

Indeed, who’d have thought back then that an unproven and raw teenager would eventually become the elder-statesman of Toronto FC? Morgan, now 26, showed well in his debut, using his speed down the flank to cause problems against Arabe Unido. He made several strong defensive plays, including a clearance off a corner kick, and even came close to scoring when he unleashed a hard shot from the top of the 18-yard box that forced the Panamanian goalkeeper to make a diving save.

“I have the same [cleats] from that game. I remember the tackles I made, the energy that I brought. My dad will never let me forget that day,” Morgan said.

It was under former coach Aron Winter that Morgan was given a chance to blossom, making 14 appearances during the 2011 season, his first in MLS. Winter liked what he saw from Morgan that year, enough to make him a regular starter the following campaign. Of course, that 2012 season was a disaster – the Reds lost their first nine matches, and Winter was fired soon after. The club only won five times all year, but the young Canadian was one of the few bright spot on a pretty dire team.

To this day, Morgan gives Winter a lot of credit for showing so much faith in him.

“He helped shape me as a footballer and as a man. I was fresh out of the academy, so I had to grow up pretty fast,” Morgan admitted.

“Aron was great with the younger players; he believed in us, he was so encouraging and he gave us a chance. For the older players, maybe it was a different experience. But for us young guys at the time, he was great. Aron was one of the best things that happened to me.”

That’s not to say it’s been all smooth sailing for the soft-spoken Morgan. When Justin Morrow arrived in 2014, Morgan immediately lost his starting place on the left side of defence, and has never won it back. Having one of the league’s best fullbacks ahead of him in depth chart has meant Morgan has had to bide his time as a backup.

Injuries have also taken their toll. He played in only seven games last year (totaling a meagre 117 minutes), with his last appearance coming on Aug. 14. The following month he underwent foot surgery, and he missed the final 10 games of the season and didn’t take part in any of the team’s six playoff matches. During a pre-season game in Los Angeles in February, he reinjured the foot and had a second surgery to repair the stress fracture in it.

“After the first surgery, I put myself into a shell, into a bubble, and that didn’t help me out with the recovery process. I definitely had that thought at the beginning when I got injured for the second time – I was like, ‘Come on. I can’t catch a break here!’ But I put that behind me as fast as I could, just knowing that if you dwell on it and sulk that it doesn’t help you at all,” Morgan said

Only last week did the Canadian defender return to full training. He’s healthy again, but he lacks match fitness, so he’ll likely spend time with the farm club, TFC 2, as part of his recovery process.

It’s interesting to note that Toronto coach Greg Vanney suffered a similar injury during his MLS playing career, and like Morgan, he was out for a lengthy period of time. He has offered Morgan a very simple piece of advice.

“Ash just needs to be Ash. Within our system there’s a couple different things that he can do within it – he can play at left back, he’s also a very sound defender, and he can also play as a wingback. The key for Ash is to get fit and get himself going again. We’ll look for the right opportunities to get him going and give him some opportunities to play some minutes,” Vanney said.

Those opportunities might be hard to come by, though. With Morrow firmly established as the starter, and Canadian youngster Raheem Edwards impressing in recent outings, the road back for Morgan is one with many obstacles. Still, he’s not put off by the challenge ahead of him.

“I just know that when I’m fully fit and fully healthy, I know I can knock on the door again. With my qualities, and my experience with the team and the league, I’ll be okay,” Morgan vowed.

The first decade of Toronto FC in the words of the players, coaches, executives and fans who built the franchise.

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