Where would Seattle be if Jordan Morris had picked Werder Bremen?
Just a mere 10 months ago, the American soccer world was abuzz with the news that Jordan Morris was nearing a deal to join Bundesliga club Werder Bremen. Still a Stanford student at the time, Morris had enjoyed a sparkling 2015 that included a goal in April for the U.S men's national team in a 2-0 friendly victory against longtime foe Mexico, followed by a brace in the Cardinal's 4-0 triumph against Clemson in the NCAA Men's Division I Championship Game.
It looked like the 21-year-old would then make the leap across the pond to become the latest U.S. international in the German top-flight. But in the end, the pull of playing in front of family and friends in his hometown Seattle was too strong. Days later, there he was being introduced to the Seattle media with a Sounders scarf draped around his neck.
Fast forward to the present day and here we are with Morris and the Sounders in the Western Conference finals of MLS Cup playoffs. One can't help but think where Seattle would be if Morris had stayed in Germany. Would they have even reached the playoffs? Would the Sounders' ownership group have pursued another striker, especially after Obafemi Martins' February departure for China? We'll never know for sure, but Morris' season paints enough of a picture to give us an idea.
Let's start with goals. In all, Morris had 12 in 34 appearances (32 starts) during the regular season. Without question it was a very good haul for a first season at the professional level and, with all due respect to Philadelphia Union defender Keegan Rosenberry, well worthy of Rookie of the Year honors.
But it didn't start smoothly. While learning to play on the right wing in Seattle's 4-3-3, he was hardly a factor in the team's first five games: Seattle earned just four points and even had some supposed experts (ahem) suggesting Morris be benched in favor of Herculez Gomez. To his credit, former coach Sigi Schmid stayed with Morris and was handsomely repaid with four goals in the next four games, two of which were winners.
Morris' true impact would come later though. With no Martins around, Nelson Valdez dealing with an injury and Clint Dempsey with the U.S. national team at the Copa America, it was up to the rookie Morris to carry the load, fair or not. Unsurprisingly Seattle struggled, tallying just 20 goals in their first 19 games.
Yes, creative attacking midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro was arriving from Boca Juniors and hulking center back Roman Torres was returning from injury, but the upheaval from Schmid's firing in late July, followed by the news of Clint Dempsey's heart ailment left the Sounders in a cloud of uncertainty as fall drew near. Their playoff chances had turned from slim to grim.
Morris responded in a huge way by scoring three goals, including two winners at the beginning of Seattle's four-game winning streak in September, a run that ultimately propelled the team into the postseason. You cannot deny the importance that the young striker played in that stretch. With Valdez either injured or struggling to find the back of the net, someone needed to step up in Seattle's attack and be the man to finish off the chances that Lodeiro was creating. Morris was that guy.
His evolution from the beginning of the season is evident. His hold-up play has improved; he is combining better with teammates; he relishes attacking defenders. A prime example is the first of his two goals against the Galaxy. Morris completely blows by LA defender Daniel Steres and then finishes with aplomb.
These flourishes weren't evident in early March, but the summer months in which there was no Dempsey or Valdez to rely on accelerated his development. And it also made it easier for him to play as the lone forward up top in Seattle's shift to a 4-2-3-1 after Dempsey's injury.
Now, Morris is poised to return from the hamstring injury that kept him out of the international break and ready to lead the Sounders against the Rapids. Seattle's summer struggles are a thing of the past and a large part of that has been Morris, who is now more valuable than ever to his club.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .