Once youngsters, now leaders: How Morris and Roldan have grown as Sounders prepare for another MLS Cup final

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When Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan hoisted MLS Cup with the Seattle Sounders in 2016, they were seen as the future.

Although they were both key contributors on that run to the league's ultimate prize, the two were just small pieces in that overarching puzzle.

That was a trophy crafted by Ozzie Alonso, Chad Marshall, Stefan Frei, Nico Lodeiro and, despite his absence, down the home stretch, Clint Dempsey. Morris and Roldan? They were young and promising, and their times would come.

In the years since, the two Sounders stars have been equally praised and maligned. The two have grown as players, helping the Sounders reach MLS Cup once again in 2017 while breaking through with the U.S. national team. Yet, there have been criticisms. They've been seen as both the cause and effect of a declining USMNT program, the latest symptom of a national team too reliant on domestic-based talent.

It's fair to say they've been written off on more than one occasion, chastised for never making this perceived push outside of their comfort zone.

In the years since the day in Ato Boldon Stadium that changed the course of the USMNT forever, Roldan and Morris have become two players that, to some, have encapsulated the new-look USMNT's failure to move on. They're not the only ones. Wil Trapp, Gyasi Zardes, Daniel Lovitz have all have been written off as not good enough.

Yet, when Morris and Roldan take the field in Sunday's MLS Cup finale, it'll be a much different experience than those from prior seasons. This is their team now and, despite all of the criticisms and backlash that they've faced in the years prior, they are once again one step away from lifting another trophy.

Morris, in particular, has been a player that has long been under the spotlight for American soccer fans. It was a natural response given Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to include the then-college star on a senior USMNT squad in 2014. That call-up meant he was next, that he was the next prospect to break through and become the goalscoring machine to replace the Landon Donovans and Dempseys of the world.

Every decision Morris has made, on and off the field, has been the subject of increased scrutiny ever since.

His choice to stay in Seattle was seen as immature. He was ridiculed for not pushing himself and going to Germany to play in the Bundesliga as Klinsmann so often suggested. His faults were then hyper analysed. His weak foot? Problematic. His finishing? Not good enough. His mentality? Weak.

That was, until this season, when Morris finally showed signs of becoming the player many expected him to be. His run has included 12 goals across the regular and postseason, as well as a Comeback Player of the Year award after missing the entire 2017 season with an ACL tear. In every season that Jordan Morris has been healthy and available, the Seattle Sounders have played in the MLS Cup final.

"I’m completely happy with my decision. I do get asked sometimes, but I have zero regrets," Morris said. "The team has been very successful and I’ve grown as a player here, especially this last year, I’ve continued to develop and grow. MLS is growing and getting better and it’s exciting to be a part of that.

"But for me personally, it would be a dream come true to win MLS Cup in my hometown. Obviously we got one before and that was super special, but to win one here in front of our fans, they deserve it. This city deserves it."

Jordan Morris 2019

His longtime teammate Roldan has enjoyed watching his success: "It’s so good to see him have fun. He’s having the most fun he’s had in his career, I think. A large part has to do with switching from right to left wing. Once he got back from the Gold Cup, he was a bit sharper, he seemed a bit fitter, stronger in every category."

Like Morris, Roldan has had his share of peaks and valleys.

Drafted in 2015, Roldan quickly became a regular contributor for the Sounders, learning from the likes of Alonso in the midfield. By 2016, he was an MLS Cup winner as he started the final 13 matches of the season and all six postseason games once head coach Brian Schmetzer took over. By 2017, a Gold Cup champion and a full USMNT international that looked poised to compete as Michael Bradley's understudy as the USMNT marched through the final matches of World Cup qualifying.

But, in the years since, Roldan has drawn the ire of USMNT fans, as have plenty of other players based in MLS.

Roldan has been a regular fixture under USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter, appearing in 13 of the 16 games since the former Columbus Crew boss took over. But, over those 16 games, Berhalter and the USMNT as a whole have repeatedly come under fire for not having the quality or mentality to go toe-to-toe with any teams of note.

Yet here Roldan is, in another MLS Cup final. He has started 109 of the 115 matches since Brian Schmetzer took over. The six he's missed came when he was on USMNT duty.

Sunday he'll get a chance to go up against Bradley once again, another oft-criticised USMNT star looking to further his legacy.

"Anytime I’m facing him, I want him to feel that I’m good enough to be on the same field as him," Roldan said. "I’ve played alongside him and what a competitor he is.

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"Anytime I get to have a conversation with him and learn and enjoy the moment I have with him is really a unique experience. I had his jersey growing up, so it’s going to be really fun to face him again.”

Morris is just 25 years old. Roldan is one year younger. On Sunday, they'll compete in their third MLS Cup, looking to capture it for the second time. At an age where many American players are still considered young, both Morris and Roldan have been down this road before. They've been in these games, won this trophy and, ultimately, become better players than they were in years past.

But this time, they're not up-and-comers and they're not along for the ride. They are the leaders now, and their time has come.