In December of 2019, Indiana University lost in the third round of the NCAA Men’s Soccer Tournament. On that team was 2019 Big Ten Freshmen of the Year, Aidan Morris. Thanks to a desire to improve, a spirit of humility and learning from players around him, a year later saw him winning a different tournament. His impact performance secured the Columbus Crew the MLS Cup.
Crew head coach Caleb Porter is known for playing his best players regardless of age, and on Oct. 7, 2020, he placed Morris’ in the starting 11 for the Black & Gold the first time. Then 18-year-old Morris went on to start three matches, on top of eight substitute appearances, for the 2020 league-winning Columbus side. While he didn’t directly contribute in goal scoring, his tenacity and speed from box to box caused fits for the Seattle Sounders midfield in the Final after the rookie started in place of the unavailable Darlington Nagbe.
Now, in 2021, training and rest both play a big part in his on-field improvement.
“This last offseason was important,” Morris said this week. “Obviously, the soccer aspect, to just touch up on some details, expand my game, reach different levels and also wind down.”
Last year’s COVID-19 impacted season was physically and mentally straining for Crew players. They, like the rest of the world, had to adjust their lives around a global pandemic. Columbus had the added pressure of having to travel and compete at the same time.
The time off this offseason, spent with family, helped the league chatter about Morris’ MLS Cup performance not get to his head. Talking with the media on Wednesday, Morris did what he does best on the field, take control and change the narrative.
“I’m not looking to the future as much as I can and I’m trying to stay in the present,” said Morris when asked his postseason hype. “It’s important that I focus on every next practice, every next detail, every pass, every touch.”
Morris isn’t alone in that focus. He credits fellow midfielders like Nagbe, and even Crew midfielders of the past which he trained with as a member of the Crew Academy, for his development. One current teammate specifically helped him in his academy years, Brazilian midfielder Artur.
When Artur joined the Black & Gold ahead of the 2017 season, he was young, like Morris, at just 20 years old. Now 25, Artur still remembers training alongside the Homegrown player.
“He was a little smaller and younger. I think he has grown a lot. He’s got strength and understanding the game more,” said Artur. “I think he’s going the right way. Being humble and trying to learn from everybody. It’s very good to see that.”
It isn’t only the midfield group that’s contributed to the evolution of Morris. Center backs have a key advantage of having the entire field in front of them. They see plays develop, recognize opponent movements and communicate needs to the team in front of them. Columbus has two veterans in the position that exhibit strong leadership both on and off the pitch and both those players have helped Morris as well.
“It’s guys like Josh (Williams). It’s guys like Jona (Jonathan Mensah) as well, from everywhere on the field, they’re all investing in me,” said Morris.
That support was evident in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League match.
In the 26th minute of Columbus’ 4-0 first leg victory against Nicaraguan side Real Esteli, Morris and midfielder Juan Barrera both went for a ball before it went out of bounds. Barrera reacted to the pressure from Morris with an elbow to the face of the midfielder. Mensah ran to his defense, earning a yellow card in the process. On-field microphones picked up part of the interaction, with Mensah getting in the face of Berrara, yelling, “Why did you do that?”
Before the half, Morris showed that he isn’t only a defensive-minded midfielder, a role that he fills often with the Crew. He made moves that looked more like midfielder Lucas Zelarayan, fooling three opposing players in the penalty box.
In the second half, Morris shined defensively with a well-timed slide tackle, which undeservedly earned him a yellow card. At the 60th minute, Morris made way for Artur. On his way off the field, he appeared to give the referee constructive criticism, five minutes after receiving a yellow card.
“The refs, who knows if they play a part or they don’t,” said Morris about the notion of CONCACAF referees giving considerations to the home side. “We can just control the controllables. I think that’s the most important thing.”
Morris is proving Porter right with his selections in the team. Selections made off the player’s form in practice but also due to injuries.
Columbus had midfield injuries throughout 2020, and the same trend surfaced already in 2021. Nagbe is dealing with a tight hamstring that may see him miss a game or two. Artur recovery from offseason hernia surgery and is working to get back to fitness. These hurdles cause Porter to adjust the midfield match-to-match.
“Who’s confident, who’s in a rhythm, the mentality and chemistry of winning games, in my opinion, is often the difference,” said Porter. “You have to ride the wave on certain guys and when that wave crashes, sometimes you gotta go to another guy. Ideally, the best players, that wave never crashes. It’s always gathering and gaining even more momentum.”
Morris is riding that momentum to begin his second professional season. After his first-leg performance, Morris has a strong chance of starting again when Esteli comes to historic Crew Stadium. Home supporters saw what Morris was able to do as a rookie in 2000 and will hope he can carry that over in 2021.