As a 20-year-old Stanford junior, Jordan Morris has already fulfilled a career's worth of dreams in the past year. Stepping onto the field with Neymar and swapping shirts with Robinho after the United States’ 4–1 loss to Brazil earlier this month was just the latest stop on his surreal ride since a first national team call-up in September 2014.
“Playing on the same field as some of those guys was definitely a super cool experience,” he told SI.com over the phone on Tuesday. “It’s been a crazy last few months, but it’s been exciting. A lot of dreams coming true, so it’s been awesome.”
After joining the senior team for the Brazil match on Sept. 8, Morris is in Kansas City, Kansas, this week with the U.S. Under-23 team for the start of CONCACAF Olympic qualifying. The Americans have failed to qualify for two of the last three quadrennial events and didn’t even make it out of the group stage four years ago after a loss to Canada and draw with El Salvador.
The pressure is on, but Morris said he and his teammates–rising stars like Gedion Zelalem, Emerson Hyndman, Wil Trapp among them–aren’t overly troubled by it.
“Obviously, we’re a different team coming in than last cycle,” he said. “Those guys got a little unlucky, but I don’t think we’re trying to think too much about the pressure.”
It should help that the U.S. received about as favorable a draw as possible this time, taking on Canada on Thursday in the group-stage opener before matches against Cuba and Panama. The top two teams from each of the two groups advance to the semifinals at Real Salt Lake's Rio Tinto Stadium, and the two semifinal winners on Oct. 10 automatically go through to Rio 2016; the third-placed team faces Colombia in a playoff.
By now, Morris is used to the kind of scrutiny that comes with being a college player on the national team. The head-scratching started almost immediately following U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to call him up for the first camp after the 2014 World Cup, but he's done his part to validate his selection.
That said, he has been the benefit of some opportunism and good fortune during his ascent in the national team ranks.
He played well in a friendly behind closed doors between the 2014 World Cup squad and his college team during the U.S.’s pre-tournament camp, which just happened to be hosted on his home campus. A favorable bounce off an atrocious playing surface in his first senior start gave him the chance to score the first goal against Mexico (there was nothing lucky about his confident finish, though) in an April friendly that finished, of course, 2–0.
It’s no coincidence that one of the words Morris uses most is “opportunity.” He recognizes one when it sits in front of him, and few American players his age have taken advantage of them as swiftly. That mentality applies to Olympic qualifying as well.
“We’ve just got to think that it’s an opportunity to go out there and show what we can do,” Morris said. “Instead of looking at it as pressure, I just look at it as a really cool opportunity that we have in front of us, to try to qualify.”
Morris was also named to the preliminary roster for the U.S.’s showdown with Mexico for a place in the 2017 Confederations Cup, but he said he expects to be with the U-23s. The senior game is the same day as the decisive Olympic qualifying semifinals.
One glaring chance he hasn’t seized yet has been the chance to turn pro. As players around him hurry to sign contracts at younger ages each year, Morris has turned down the Seattle Sounders’ advances, including at least one written offer from his hometown team.
Instead of jumping at the first bid, he stuck to his original decision to play through at least his third year of college eligibility. The endless questions about his future intensify every time he plays for the national team, but Morris has shown an impressive ability to block out the noise surrounding him.
“I don’t like to think too much about it,” he said. “I feel like if I get in my head too much thinking about that stuff, it’s not going to help me out on the field.”
Still, Morris has proven he can grow as a player on the currently No. 3-ranked college team in the country. Klinsmann has also been willing to look for players in unorthodox places, calling in forwards from obscure clubs in Mexico and Germany along with the collegian.
Morris occupies the top line on Stanford’s statistical docket this season, already matching his goalscoring output from 2014 with four despite a stress fracture that required surgery over the summer. He sees steady playing time as his biggest developmental boon, and he starts every game at Stanford.
“The best preparation has always been me playing in games … and then every time you score a goal, you get a little more confidence, so I’ve been happy with that,” Morris said. “I know a lot of people disregard college, but … I feel like it’s a good environment to keep growing and to keep progressing as a player.”
It’s hard to argue when the call-ups keep coming. At least in Klinsmann’s mind, it doesn’t seem to matter whether Morris cashes an MLS paycheck or receives an NCAA scholarship.
As for the player himself, those chances in a U.S. shirt keep him motivated, including the possibility of becoming an Olympian.
“It’s a cool opportunity,” Morris said. “I’m just excited to play.”