- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 26, 2016

TUKWILA, Wash. (AP) - Jordan Morris arrived in Seattle last winter with so much hype that meeting the lofty expectations was going to be difficult.

That’s why it’s not simple to define Morris‘ rookie season that included flashes of brilliance, stretches when he disappeared on the field and ultimately helping the floundering Sounders go from the bottom of the Western Conference to again finding themselves in the MLS playoffs.

The Sounders’ rise to an eighth straight playoff appearance could come to an abrupt end Thursday night against Sporting Kansas City in the knockout round of the MLS playoffs. Seattle lost both of its matches against Kansas City this season, losing 1-0 in the season opener at home before a 3-0 loss on the road in July that proved to be the final match before Sigi Schmid was let go as head coach.

“I think this is a different group. It’s definitely different than the game in July,” Seattle interim coach Brian Schmetzer said.

Whether Seattle can get past Kansas City may depend on how well Morris plays.

Morris heads into his first postseason as the team leader with 12 goals and a role that has evolved throughout the season.

When he signed in February, Morris was going to work in concert with the duo of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins at the top of Seattle’s attack.

Before the first match of the season, that plan changed after Martins left the Sounders for an offer in China . That put even more expectations on Morris to make up for Martins’ absence offensively and those hopes weighed heavily on Morris during a scoreless first month of the season.

“At the start of the year it was tough,” he said. “A lot of expectations and when I wasn’t scoring those first few games people were giving me a lot of stick. I read too much into it at the beginning of the year and it definitely affected me. But after that I decided to not look into any of that stuff and just focus on what I could do to help the team. I think that helped. I didn’t read Twitter anymore or all that stuff. I let that go.”

What helped turn Morris was an early-season conversation with Schmid. Schmid told Morris - who turned 22 on Wednesday - that it didn’t look like he was having fun. And truthfully, he wasn’t. He was hearing the criticism that he wasn’t worthy of the hype.

“He was like ‘you need to have fun. It needs to be the right balance of working hard and having fun,’” Morris said. “I think that conversation was good. It kind of changed how I thought about things and to go out there and have more fun after that.”

It’s helped that Morris has been counted on to be more of a factor in the latter half of his rookie season than anyone anticipated. Dempsey’s season suddenly ended in late August due to an irregular heartbeat. That’s put more of the offensive responsibility on Morris to control the game at the top of Seattle’s formation.

Morris has played at least 89 minutes in 10 of the past 11 games and while he’s without a goal since Sept. 25, Morris‘ back-heel assist last Sunday against Real Salt Lake gave Seattle the exact start it needed in a must-win game.

“(We’re) a determined team, strong team defensively, good goalkeeping, very good midfield play. Jordan, he’s a good player,” Schmetzer said. “We will cause teams problems because we’re a team, because the team believes they can win.”

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