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An offseason change leads Aidan Morris into important 2023 Crew season

The Black & Gold central midfielder is ready to step into a bigger as plenty is different for him this year.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Charlotte FC Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been an offseason of change for Aidan Morris. The Columbus Crew midfielder is set to enter his fourth professional season and this year will be different than the previous three.

One major reason is that Morris and his Crew teammates have a new head coach leading the team in 2023. Wilfried Nancy was hired in December in an effort to help return the team to the MLS Cup playoffs after two fruitless years following a championship in 2020.

Like all of the Black & Gold players, Morris has had to adjust to a new voice who has new ways of thinking about the game.

“As soccer players, there’s so many ways to express yourself in the game. There’s so many ways to play it. There’s so many ways to kind of line up against an opponent. And I think he has a unique style and we love it,” Morris said of Nancy during the preseason.

Unlike many of his teammates, however, a new head coach is a first as a pro for Morris. He was signed to a Homegrown contract by Columbus in 2020 under Caleb Porter, the only head coach Morris has had at this level.

Under Porter, Morris thrived in two of the last three seasons – he missed all of 2021 after tearing his ACL – playing in 37 games and making 22 starts, including becoming the youngest player to start an MLS Cup Final during his rookie season.

Morris proved himself at the MLS level under Porter, but Nancy is challenging the 21 year old to change his game this year. Having seen Morris last season as the head coach of CF Montreal, Nancy had an idea for how Morris could improve his overall play.

“I liked him then because he has a lot of activity on the pitch,” Nancy said of Morris. “But now the challenge for him is he runs too much.”

For Crew fans who have watched Morris play, Nancy’s comments may sound strange. Morris’ non-stop energy on the pitch has been a characteristic that has made him successful early on in his career, as well as a fan favorite because of the effort he gives. His ability to chase down opponents and make tackles was important in that MLS Cup Final, as well as in his career-high 20 starts a year ago.

Why would a head coach want to change what a player does well? Because Nancy believes Morris can have a bigger impact on the team as a whole if he isn’t moving all over the field.

“He has to stay a bit more in his position to be able to free up the space for a teammate or free up the space for him to be able to play,” Nancy continued. “So this is not natural for him because he likes to touch the ball but the key point, the way we built the team and the way we play is that there is a trust part within that. So that’s why when we play on the left, he then has to stay in a certain position because all the players know that if they cannot attack directly to the net, they’re going to be able to play on the right side and going to have an (advantage) in the position, a 3 v. 2 or 4 v. 3. So the idea is for him to be more composed in terms of his position. And also the challenge for him is to recognize the moment to play forward and recognize the moment to slow down the play.”

What’s interesting is that Morris doesn’t see himself as the ball-winner that he’s been at times during his first three years in MLS. Playing in the Crew Academy growing up and in his one season at Indiana University, Morris played on the attack. He was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2019 because of what he did offensively more so than on the defensive side of the field.

While he understands he his role is different as a professional and with the Black & Gold, Morris wants to bring that offensive game back. After no goals and just one assist in the last two seasons he played, this is another change for Morris.

“I want to get some goals this year, that’s what I’m gonna do,” he said early in the preseason. “I want to get some goals, want to get some assists. That’s what I’m going for.”

Those that tuned in on Jan. 25 for the United State Men’s National Team friendly against Serbia got a glimpse of Morris being more offensive. The midfielder drove forward in the first half and unleashed a shot from outside the penalty box that was destined for the top corner before a diving save from the goalkeeper.

Should Crew fans expect to see more of that from the midfielder in black and gold this season?

“Hopefully the next one goes in the back of the net,” Morris responded. “But yeah, they’ll see a little bit more of that.”

Getting the opportunity with the USMNT was another change this offseason. Morris had previously been called into a training camp with the Americans, but the January camp allowed him to make his international debut.

That is an experience he now brings back with him to Columbus for the 2023 season.

“I think when you get called up to represent your country, it comes with a certain level and a standard,” Morris said. “I think anybody that gets called up to the national team, you should be held to a standard and when you come (back) to your club, you should be driving a standard, representing a good standard every single day. So I think that’s what I’m going to try and do. They always push me no matter if I get called up or I don’t, so I think that doesn’t change. But I’m gonna try and always keep that good level and always make my teammates better.”

Morris will be looked at to maintain that standard more this season. Not only is he slowly becoming a more veteran player, but his role for the Crew appears to be much more defined this year.

While Morris played the ninth-most minutes for the Black & Gold last season, he was not an every-game starter. That is almost certain to change this year after Columbus traded Artur this offseason. He is now set to pair with veteran Darlington Nagbe in the midfield in most games for Nancy, another change for the fourth-year player.

“I’m excited,” Nagbe said of the two getting more minutes together. “Obviously this guy has grown so much as a player and a person, so I’m excited to get a full season together. Get in there, compete together. Just build off of what we did last year, which in my opinion was good, but I think we’ve got another level we can hit and we’re looking forward to it.”

It’s a new season with a lot of new things circling around this 2023 Crew team. Morris has seen plenty of change since the end of last year, but it’s nearly all changed for the better.

One thing that won’t change is how Morris handles himself. While he’s young, he’s proven to be a true professional, which has helped him find so much success quickly. That will remain the same.

“I’ve approached every season the same, whether I’m fighting for a role or whether I have a role. It doesn’t matter,” Morris said. “My mentality should always be the same. So I think going into this, I think it’s going to be the same to where I started and signed my first professional deal that year and these years. I always try to be the best version of myself, always try to help the team the best I can and, at the end of the day, try and grow and develop myself and be a good teammate.

“I got to be better. I’ve always got to be better.”