The Columbus Crew faced a big enough challenge on Dec. 12 in the MLS Cup Final against the Seattle Sounders. If the Black & Gold were to bring home the team’s second ever MLS Cup trophy, they would have to do it against the defending champions, a team that had played in three of the last four finals, winning two.
Then on Thursday, two days before the game, the club got word that central midfielder Darlington Nagbe had tested positive for COVID-19. The offseason addition, which the Crew paid over $1 million in allocation money for, would not suit up for Columbus in the biggest game of the year.
The news came during Thursday’s practice with Nagbe already sitting out while he awaited word on his test. This meant head coach Caleb Porter had to turn to rookie Homegrown midfielder Aidan Morris for the MLS Cup Final.
“Aidan was already sort of in the team at that point and what they were doing in the session,” president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko recalled to Jason Davis on SiriusXM FC last week. “And I think Caleb at one point went over to Aidan and kind of gave him a look or said something to him about he needs to be ready.”
The loss of Nagbe was a big one, but it ultimately didn’t stop the Crew from prevailing, defeating the Sounders 3-0 to become the 2020 MLS Cup champions. As fate had it, playing without key players, including Nagbe, was something the team was familiar with in 2020 as the Ohio native missed eight games this year with an injury.
While the Black & Gold tried multiple players alongside Artur in the central midfield, it was Morris who started two of the final three games of Nagbe’s absence in early-to-mid October. And despite being just 19 years old, Porter saw throughout the season in his 10 appearances that Morris could play at this level.
“I believe in young players, if they are good enough,” Porter said in the postgame press conference. “If a guy is good enough, I’m going to give him the chance. But if he’s not, I’m not. I’m not a lover of playing young guys just to do it, but Aidan Morris is a winner, he’s a fighter. I knew it. I knew it in the games I played him and I’ve seen him in training. When I knew Darlington was out, he was the guy that was going to go in.”
It was clear quickly that Morris was not afraid of the spotlight and was ready for the moment. Despite becoming the youngest player to ever start in an MLS Cup Final and only the second teenager — the other being Landon Donovan — to do so, Morris didn’t get rattled and played his game.
While Columbus knew without Nagbe and winger Pedro Santos that the home team wouldn’t have as much of the ball as they would with those players, the Crew still wanted to take the game to Seattle. As he did throughout the year when on the field, Morris brought fight and grit to his side with the way he won tackles and battled for every ball in the center of the field.
When it came to possession, Morris wasn’t afraid to make a pass he believed was on, but also kept his game relatively simple. If he lost the ball, Morris worked hard to get it back and was an important part of both of the Black & Gold’s first two goals.
“I’m just a kid kicking a ball around, for the most part,” Morris said after the game. “It’s just another game. Just having fun. I’m alongside the guys I love playing with, amazing teammates. It goes back to the staff and my teammates. They make it enjoyable every day coming into the training, especially during tough times like this year. It was always enjoyable. I never go a day without not loving it.”
Without as much possession, the Crew played a more direct style, something that fits a young player like Morris who made only the third start of his career in the Final. This was successful, with the team scoring two first half goals on plays that were both started by the rookie and led to finishes by Lucas Zelarayan and Derrick Etienne Jr., the first of which Morris was credited with an assist.
Even more impressively, however, was how Morris helped to neutralize the impact of Sounders’ playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro. The Seattle No. 10, who came into the game with one goal and three assists in the MLS Cup playoffs, recorded just two shots on the night despite being on the ball significantly more than anyone else on the field.
“I think the key word is just communication from front to back,” Morris said of dealing with Lodeiro. “He’s obviously a great player so it takes a lot of communication to know where he’s at and just kind of conserving your energy and knowing when to move and to kind of sit still and cover space.
“But communication, I think, was the most important thing. Arty and I can both cover ground pretty well, so that’s a plus. So when it comes to that, just the main point is just talking and giving little information to your teammates.”
Adversity was the name of the game for everyone in 2020. Whether it was the unknowns of the season, dealing with a compressed schedule or battling injuries, the team that handled the tough situations best was going to come out on top.
One of the Crew’s mottos this season was to always be ready for whatever is to come, whether that’s an obstacle or an opportunity. While Morris didn’t see the chance to start an MLS Cup Final and play the best game of his young professional career coming, he was ready for it when it did.
“I’d probably say my first answer would be no, but nothing’s impossible,” the midfielder said. “That’s another motto that I live by. I would probably say no. But there’s always opportunities and every time I got an opportunity this year, I tried to take full advantage of it.”