TORONTO – Of all the players on Toronto FC’s high-priced roster, Justin Morrow is the most unassuming.
Morrow has been one of TFC’s most consistent and reliable performers since joining the club before the 2014 MLS season via a trade with the San Jose Earthquakes, firmly establishing himself as one of the best left fullbacks in the league.
Yet, the mild-mannered, soft-spoken Morrow just goes about his business, carrying himself with quiet dignity. He doesn’t say much, preferring to do his talking on the field. But he admits to having to learn how to step outside of himself in recent months, to come out of his shell for the good of the club.
Morrow has been sidelined since early March when he suffered a tear in his calf during the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals against Mexican club Tigres. As a result, Morrow, a 30-year-old native of Cleveland, has been limited to just one appearance in MLS – he started the season opener on March 3 against the Columbus Crew.
Leading by example has always been his way. But because Morrow has been unable to contribute on the pitch, he has had to find other ways to help TFC during his two-month injury layoff. He’s become more vocal, more outgoing, and has put himself out there more.
It’s been a learning experience, and he admits it hasn’t been easy.
“As a leader on this team, as someone who has been here a while, I love to let my play speak for itself. When I’m not playing, it’s not my natural tendency to go find different ways to help. That’s been a challenge for me, and it’s something that I’ve got better at. Hopefully, I can still bring something to the team when I’m not playing and push the guys along,” Morrow told Sportsnet in a one-on-one interview.
In particular, Morrow has mentored Ryan Telfer, the 24-year-old Canadian who signed with the team in April, and made his MLS debut that same month. Aside from filling in defence, Telfer has also been deployed in Morrow’s position.
“I’m having conversations with players more, mostly with Ryan, helping him through the process of him getting his first minutes in MLS, talking about different plays with him. I’ve had to come outside of myself, things that I’m not comfortable with, and things that I haven’t done in the past,” Morrow admitted.
Morrow has been an iron-man of sorts for Toronto, renowned for his durability. He’s played 122 regular season games for the Reds over the last four years (all but two of them as a starter), averaging over 30 appearances per season. He ranks second in all-time MLS appearances for the club, behind only Jonathan Osorio.
Morrow has also developed into a genuine attacking threat. He only scored twice during his four-year stint in San Jose. During his tenure in Toronto, he’s scored 15 goals, including a career-high eight last season.
“It’s been difficult, this layoff. This is my first extended injury of my career. I’ve been very fortunate up until now to stay injury free. It’s something that every athlete deals with at some point in their career, so I’m learning how to deal with it. I’ve had a lot of setbacks, so like anything along this journey, it’ll make me stronger, it’ll make me a better professional,” Morrow said.
It also didn’t help matters that he originally tried to play through the pain against Tigres.
“The day before in practice, I was feeling it a little bit in my calf. … I had the MRI when we came back from Mexico, and there was a tear there,” Morrow said
“Up until that point, I could only base my judgement off things I had done so far in my career. I had a great track record of being healthy. I’d played through a lot of different things here and there, whether it was muscle tightness or whatever. I’d always played through it, and I’d always come out on the other side of it. This time I didn’t.”
TFC have badly missed Morrow, his absence only serving to underline an injury crisis that has decimated the club. The Reds are off to one of their worst starts in franchise history, sitting ninth in the Eastern Conference with a 3-7-1 record with a third of the campaign in the books.
“It’s been a difficult stretch for us in MLS. … The message from our coaching staff and the front office is that we can get out of this. That’s the mentality that this club has, it’s the mentality that I have and preach every day,” Morrow offered.
“I would say [the situation is] urgent, but everybody knows that, and everybody is positive about turning things around.”
As for when Morrow might return to action, only he knows for sure, and he’s not talking.
Morrow participated in portions of practice earlier this week, but he is not quite ready to return to full training, and won’t be able to play in Saturday’s road game versus Columbus. That said, the fact Morrow was out on the pitch with his teammates is a positive sign that he is making progress.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m feeling stronger every day,” Morrow said. “I don’t want to say [when I’ll be able to come back] because every time I’ve told somebody, I’ve had a setback. This time, I’m just going to let it go and not jinx it.”