‘Mr. Reliable’ Justin Morrow still a key figure for Toronto FC


Justin Morrow, right, in action for Toronto FC. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

TORONTO – The back portion of Toronto FC’s locker room is teeming with reporters anxiously waiting on the man of the hour to get dressed and emerge from his stall.

Alejandro Pozuelo marked his Major League Soccer debut by scoring two goals, including an audacious “Panenka” from the penalty spot, and set up another by Jozy Altidore in a 4-0 win over New York City FC. Naturally, every member of the assembled media wants to talk to the Spanish playmaker, who only arrived in town the previous week.

Before Pozuelo steps out from behind the curtain and stands in front of the cameras and microphones, other TFC players come out and help themselves to something to eat from the buffet table against the far wall.

Justin Morrow casually picks up a plate, piles on a few chicken fingers, and slowly snacks on them before chatting to the team’s PR guy Jeff Bradley. Pozuelo still hasn’t come out, so Bradley asks the reporters if anybody wants to talk to Morrow in the meantime. Nobody answers, and only a few even look up from their phones. Morrow finishes up eating, and with no media responsibilities to fulfill, he walks out the back door, headed home to be with his wife and two young kids after another night’s work.

Morrow put in a solid, yet unspectacular, complete-game effort against NYCFC, and is one of only three players (captain Michael Bradley and defender Chris Mavinga are the others) to have played every minute of the first five games of the MLS campaign for TFC. Chances are pretty good Morrow will play another 90 minutes on Friday night when Toronto hosts Minnesota United at BMO Field – and it’s just as likely his efforts for the Reds’ cause will be overshadowed by the exploits of Pozuelo and Altidore.

Such is life for Morrow, otherwise known as TFC’s “Mr. Reliable.” A 31-year-old native of Cleveland, Morrow has been one of the Reds’ most consistent players since joining the team prior to the 2014 MLS season via trade with the San Jose Earthquakes.

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In that time, Morrow has established himself as one of the top defenders in MLS, averaging 28 starts per season over the previous four years, a testament to his durability in a physical league. His best campaign came in 2017 when was named to the MLS Best XI, and was a runner-up in voting for the defender of the year award, playing an integral part in Toronto’s record-setting, treble-winning season.

Morrow has also proven to be incredibly versatile, playing as a left fullback or wingback – and sometimes in the centre of defence – and in a variety of formations. Regardless of the position or where he’s been asked to play, Morrow has handed his assignments with aplomb and professionalism, making a seamless transition with each tactical curveball that coach Greg Vanney has thrown his way.

No surprise, then, that his game has evolved since coming to Toronto, developing into a genuine attacking threat. He only scored twice during his four-year stint in San Jose when he was more of a traditional defender. During his tenure in Toronto, he’s scored 16 goals, including a career-high eight in 2017, and worked his way back into contention for the U.S. national team.

If you’ve never watched Morrow closely during game, do yourself a favour by focusing in on him during Friday’s tilt against Minnesota. By paying close attention to him, you’ll begin to understand the subtle nuances of Morrow’s game, and why he’s so vitally important for TFC.

Bradley holds things down in midfield, Drew Moor anchors the defence, Pozuelo and Jonathan Osorio provide the creativity, and Altidore supplies the goals. Morrow is a two-way player, providing Toronto’s attack with width by bombing down the flanks, and doing the dirty defensive work at the back end. He’s often involved in the beginning of attacking actions that lead to goals, and helps snuff out the final actions that routinely lead to goals by the opposition.

In doing so, Morrow has become a core player for TFC, his name one of the first in Vanney’s team sheet. If Morrow is healthy, he starts – guaranteed.

And yet, Morrow’s invaluable contributions largely go unnoticed.

Part of the reason is the nature of his game, his playing style. It’s not especially glamorous and doesn’t lend itself to highlight-reel moments.

It’s also because he shuns the spotlight. The mild-mannered, soft-spoken Morrow just goes about his business, carrying himself with a quiet dignity.

Morrow doesn’t say much, preferring to do his talking on the field. But his play speaks volumes.

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