One of the best moments of the 2016 Major League Soccer season came early in the playoffs. On October 30, the Seattle Sounders hosted FC Dallas in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals.
The squad from the Pacific Northwest won 3-0, continuing a remarkable resurgence after being left for dead midseason. It was the type of complete performance that has the Sounders on the brink of winning their first MLS Cup: solid defensively, organized in the midfield and opportunistic on the attack.
The second goal epitomized the new-look Sounders at their best. In the the 55th minute, rookie sensation Jordan Morris picked up a loose pass near midfield, then used his searing pace to sprint into the six-yard box. Rather than shoot, he calmly slid a cross to Uruguay international Nicolas Lodeiro, the midseason pickup who has been nothing short of spectacular, with eight goals and eight assists in 18 matches.
Lodeiro tapped the ball into the net, meeting Morris behind the goal to celebrate as fire shot up from two nearby pillars and nearly 40,000 supporters screamed.
For the long-suffering franchise, which boast the league's largest fanbase, it was quite a moment. The best part, however, came a few hours later. Major League Soccer loves some meme action, and the Sounders' social media staff posted an Instagram image of Lodeiro and Morris running at each other following the goal with the caption "When you spot your BFF across the room #ThisMoment."
The club's rabid fanbase began liking and commenting. "This is why it's the greatest game in the world," one commenter posted. "Yasssssssss," wrote another. Typical supporters stuff. One comment, however, stood out from the rest. It came from Cristian Roldan, second-year rising Sounders star, who posted, "That's not his bff."
Roldan and Morris—21 and 22 years old, respectively—were both enjoying breakout seasons and became best friends this year. It's no surprise that Roldan, jokingly we have to assume, took offense at someone else stepping on his turf. You've got to battle for your boys. No hard feelings, though. Two comments later, Morris responded, tagging his buddy and sending a heart emoji his way. Potential bestie crisis averted. All was well in Sounders world.
For Seattle, and for MLS, the burgeoning bromance between Roldan and Morris couldn't have come at a better time. The league is improving slowly every year, the quality on the field increasing, the television ratings ticking up and the money growing. But it lacks flair and struggles to find compelling narratives around its young players, especially its American ones.
For an organization that caters to the millennial and youth demographics who are more interested in soccer than older generations, that's not great. David Villa, Frank Lampard and the rest of the aging Designated Player lot are fine and dandy, but MLS desperately needs young phenoms such as Morris and Roldan to succeed. The fact that they are enjoying themselves on and off the field, only too happy to share their friendship with a bit of social media savvy, adds to the appeal.
The Morris-Roldan bond is both unlikely and completely understandable. They are two young men with plenty of differences in how they grew up and developed as players, brought together by sport and shared professional experiences.
Morris, whose father is the Sounders' team doctor, shot to prominence in August 2014, when Jurgen Klinsmann called the then-Stanford star into a United States senior team camp after watching him during a pre-World Cup scrimmage. He returned to college for his sophomore and junior seasons while continuing to play for the Stars and Stripes, and then he chose to forgo his senior season to turn pro.
After flirting with and ultimately spurning Germany's Werder Bremen, Morris signed the richest homegrown player contract in MLS history to join the Sounders. He struggled initially during his rookie season, needing six games to score his first goal, but he grew stronger and more confident as the year progressed.
He continued to rely upon his exceptional pace but also added some necessary deception and vision to his game and aptly handled the increased offensive load he was asked to carry after Clint Dempsey went out with a heart ailment. Morris finished his first MLS regular season with 12 goals and four assists in 32 starts, winning the Rookie of the Year award.
Roldan's introduction to the American soccer community came much earlier, although few would recognize him today. As a child, he starred in an iconic Adidas commercial, picking up plastic bags that he turned into a soccer ball.
The son of Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants was a standout at El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera, California, winning the 2012-13 National Boys Soccer Player of the Year award after scoring 54 goals and tallying 31 assists in his senior season. He found his way to the University of Washington, where he led the Huskies to a Pac-12 title in 2013, playing as a central midfielder.
He fell down the draft board to the Sounders at No. 16 and had an up-and-down rookie campaign in 2015, appearing in 22 games but starting just 11 and earning a single assist.
Roldan was learning to play the professional game, first from former Mexico national-teamer Gonzalo Pineda and then from Ozzie Alonso, with whom he's partnered to great effect this season.
"The kid is a sponge, and he works really hard," Sounders GM Garth Lagerway said, as per Jeff Carlisle of ESPN FC. Roldan started 28 games in 2016—playing all but seven minutes of the team's final 19 regular-season matches—scoring four goals, getting three assists and providing stout and tactically smart defense. He hasn't missed a second in the playoffs, helping the Sounders concede just two tallies in five fixtures on their run to Saturday's final.
Since the summer, Lodeiro has been the team's best player, but the emergence of Morris and Roldan ranks just behind his arrival in terms of importance on the field. Off it, the dynamic duo are the stars, bantering back and forth with the easy jabs of kindred spirits. Back in August, Morris charmingly interrupted a Roldan interview about how good Morris was becoming by scoring in the background.
Two months later, Roldan tweeted a series of photos of Morris signing his jersey along with the comment, "They say your heroes [aren't] approachable."
A couple of weeks after that, Roldan and Roman Torres attempted to get Morris dancing in the locker room following yet another victory. That the forward, who says he's so pigeon-toed that it's easier for him to hit a ball with the outside of his right foot than his left, has less than no rhythm wasn't the point. The fact they were having a good time and sharing it with the world—and letting the fans in too—was.
For the Morris and Roldan Show to work, the pair required a couple of factors to come together. Most importantly, the team had to start winning. It's a lot easier to be happy-go-lucky and smiling after a 2-0 victory than it is when you're sitting in last place midway through the season. Their divergent personalities—Morris, the staid and withdrawn straight-talker; Roldan, the more outgoing joker—play well off each other.
And they needed to be good individually. Both had strong seasons, finding their place in the starting lineup and finishing third and 24th respectively on MLSSoccer.com's annual 24 Under 24 countdown. It all came together, worked beautifully. And here they are, 90 minutes form hoisting MLS Cup, having given casual fans a reason to root for them.
For MLS at large, this model indicates a way forward. In mimicking Morris and Roldan, the league could find a path toward gaining a stronger foothold in American culture. Let the personalities shine. Other efforts like the Gargs & Gordo Guide, featuring Sebastian Lletget demonstrating the proper selfie technique, and The Benny Feilhaber Show, in which the Sporting Kansas City midfielder and Sal Zizzo wore sunglasses while discussing anything and everything, were more formal but in the same spirit.
Morris and Roldan are the next step, a natural friendship between emerging talents who are genuine and approachable. While not every team will can have two young stars who love to hang out with each other and post about it on social media, there's nothing wrong with making that a goal, encouraging those bonds to occur and promoting them when they do. MLS needs its youth, especially its American youth, to be good. It also needs its youth to be goofy. When it's appropriate, let that freak flag fly high.
With each passing year, soccer around the world loses a little bit of its soul, especially in Europe, where corporate money drives endless rules and regulations. The cash exists in the U.S. too, but it's less, making the sport a bit more malleable. It's a growing game here, and the league is finding its way and figuring out what works.
MLS might never get to joga bonita, but there's no reason it can't get joga diversao. Sports are supposed to be fun, and the Seattle duo's amusing act goes a long way toward achieving that goal. Their team's midseason turnaround and the astounding run to MLS Cup is the best story of the 2016 season. Their friendship is the best part of the Sounders' season. The obvious joy they take in expressing that bond is the best part of the friendship.
MLS fans—and league executives—should support, like and love their antics.
If they come together to help the Sounders beat Toronto FC on Saturday night and win the MLS Cup, expect Roldan and Morris to bring their bromance to the next level.