TORONTO – Maybe Justin Morrow has a future with the United States national team after all.
Morrow, 29, is widely considered one of the best left fullbacks in Major League Soccer. Since coming to Toronto FC in 2014, the Cleveland native has been one of the club’s most reliable defenders, and he played a key role in the Reds’ march to last season’s MLS Cup final.
He’s also developed into a dangerous attacking threat since his arrival in Toronto. In his first four MLS seasons, all with the San Jose Earthquakes, the soft-spoken Morrow scored two goals. In his last three campaigns with TFC, Morrow has bagged 10 goals, and has been one of the highest-scoring defenders in MLS.
And yet, he was largely ignored by former U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Morrow did play for the U.S. in a 2013 friendly against Canada in Houston, but that’s it – to this day, that’s his lone cap for the American team. When Bruce Arena took over earlier this year, the veteran manager overlooked Morrow for a pair of crucial World Cup qualifying matches in March, choosing instead to dress players with more national team experience.
Earlier this week, though, Morrow was among 40 players named to the U.S. preliminary roster for next month’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. Arena must submit a final 23-man roster on June 27 ahead of his team’s opener against Panama on July 8.
Morrow’s continued absence from the U.S. program has puzzled local reporters who cover TFC, including this correspondent, who didn’t understand why his excellent play in MLS wasn’t being rewarded with a chance to play for his country. It perplexed a few of his Toronto teammates, too.
Morrow insists he never let the lack of interest from the U.S. national team bother him. In fact, he used it to his advantage.
“I wouldn’t say it ate away at me … but I do play with that chip on my shoulder because of it,” Morrow told Sportsnet. “It’s something I’ve kept in my pocket as motivation to earn more respect, in terms of the national team. I got to where I am now because of that chip on my shoulder. It’s helped me out in a big way in my career.
“I knew that if I kept my form up that it would come eventually. At the same time, it wasn’t anything I was getting frustrated about because I kept on pushing myself really well, and I knew at some point it would come.”
While TFC captain Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore are expected to make the final Gold Cup roster, Morrow is more of a long shot. Jorge Villafana, who plays for Santos Laguna in Mexico, is considered the starter at left fullback for the U.S., and Arena has other options in Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forrest) and Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City).
Still, teams advancing to the knockout stage of the Gold Cup can make six changes (they are limited to players named to their 40-man roster). American coaches have taken full advantage of that rule in the past, so it’s not out of the question for Morrow to see some playing time for the U.S. this summer.
“I’m hopeful I’ll get to play [at the Gold Cup]. … If I do get the opportunity, I’ll take it, because I’m 29, and there might not be another chance after this. It’d be a great opportunity at this point in my career; I’d have nothing to lose,” Morrow said.
Morrow didn’t hear about the news directly from Arena. Instead, the U.S. manager spoke to TFC coach Greg Vanney and let him know he was looking at Morrow. Vanney told the defender that he was under consideration before he was officially named to the preliminary roster.
He hasn’t spoken to Arena, and doesn’t know exactly why he’s finally getting this call-up, although he has a hunch.
“Since I’ve been [in Toronto] I’ve been getting better and better, but over this past year and a half I’ve been pushing the envelope in terms of attacking. The team is doing well, so I’m sure that helped, and it was a combination of those factors,” Morrow offered.
Vanney believes Morrow has rightfully earned this chance, as he feels the veteran defender is “playing the best soccer of his entire career.”
Of course, if Morrow does play at the Gold Cup and becomes a regular payer for the U.S. team it would mean more time away from TFC. Bradley and Altidore, two key starters, already miss a handful of MLS games for Toronto each season when they’re away on international duty. Losing Morrow would be another blow for the Reds.
But Vanney views Morrow playing with the U.S. side as potentially beneficial for TFC.
“If we lost him, that’d be a challenge for us, but we’d be getting a player who gains more experience on the international level, and that can only help to improve him as a player,” Vanney told Sportsnet.
“If we look at the big picture, our hope next season is to play in the CONCACAF Champions League, and now you have another player who has that international experience of playing against teams from our region. That’s valuable to us, too.”