“I’m not going to rest until this year ends with me lifting that trophy.” This quote was the final line of a March interview with Justin Morrow ’06, full-back with Toronto FC of Major League Soccer (MLS).
Every pro athlete wants to win trophies; after all, they are the measure used to determine the quality of one’s career. For most it is one particular trophy that becomes their Holy Grail. For Justin Morrow it is the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy, awarded to the winner of American soccer’s version of the Super Bowl, the MLS Cup.
The importance of an MLS championship in the career of Justin Morrow was amplified because of last year’s final game. Heavily favored, Toronto FC was hosting the Seattle Sounders FC in the 2016 MLS Cup. After a scoreless 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of extra time the championship came down to penalty kicks. In a penalty kick shootout five kicks are taken by each team to determine the winner. If the teams are tied after those ten kicks, then each round of kicks proceeds under a sudden death format.
After the five required rounds were completed the score was tied at four goals each. When no one else came forward, Justin volunteered to take the penalty kick in the first sudden death round. He hit it hard and true, or so he thought. His shot struck the underside of the crossbar and ricocheted harmlessly away from the goal. The next kick was taken by Seattle’s Román Torres. With one quick stroke Torres sealed his team’s victory and Justin’s fate.
In sports, as in so many areas of life, timing is everything. Justin wasn’t the only Toronto player to miss his penalty kick – team captain Michael Bradley also missed – but Justin’s kick was the one remembered because it came last.
As with all professional athletes, the road to the final – even a losing final – is paved with great successes. Justin was a four-year letterman under Mike McLaughlin ’85 and was instrumental in propelling the Wildcats to their first two State Titles in 2004 and 2005. The top scorer on the undefeated 2005 National Championship team, Justin was selected as an Adidas/NSCAA High School All-American.
Justin’s college days were spent playing in South Bend under legendary coach Bobby Clark, who moved him to the full-back position to take advantage of his speed and skill. After spending his freshman year getting used to being a defender, Justin then started 64 games in his final three seasons, attracting enough attention to be chosen as the 28th overall pick in the 2010 MLS draft. His collegiate honors included being a captain of the Fighting Irish and twice earning Big East All-Academic honors.
Justin is the only Wildcat soccer alum to have an extended run in MLS, first with the San Jose Earthquakes and now with Toronto FC. He is also our only player to represent the United States at international level. He has made three appearances for the national team, and was a member of last summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup winning side.
On the heels of that successful tournament Justin entered this season with the momentum and focus necessary to achieve his MLS goal. In September he scored his first professional hat-trick, and he was a key component in Toronto FC’s march to the best regular season record in the history of MLS. He was also selected to the MLS Best XI Team, but without a trophy at the end of the season all of these accolades would be a bitter reminder of another opportunity missed.
Fortunately, despite the eerie similarity between this year’s final and last – same venue and same underdog opponent – a Jozy Altidore goal midway through the second half broke the 0-0 deadlock, and an injury time insurance goal by the Spaniard Víctor Vázquez started the celebration in earnest.
As I watched the post-game celebrations and saw Justin joyfully carrying the trophy that so cruelly eluded him last year I couldn’t help but think of that young man in my Freshman Theology class in the fall of 2002 as well as the dreadlocked collegian who I saw play for the Fighting Irish.
On Monday I heard about the post-game team party that was attended by several of Justin’s Wildcat friends and teammates who travelled to Toronto to watch the game. Despite that late night reveling and all the day’s excitement, I’m positive that, after lifting that trophy, Justin finally and deservingly got a good night’s sleep.