MLS Cup winner Aidan Morris: ‘Everyone wants to beat the champ’

For the second time in his young career, Aidan Morris is preparing for a season as MLS Cup champion.

Columbus Crew were popular winners in 2023, finishing as the league’s top scorers and playing a swash-buckling style under head coach Wilfried Nancy. They refused to deviate from their front-foot game plan, out-running and out-scoring all those who they came up against. They dared to do, and they did.

Now, they have to do it all over again.

Morris and Columbus are back in preseason training for the 2024 MLS campaign and Nancy will be demanding more of the same as they look to defend their title. Speaking exclusively to AS USA, Aidan Morris outlines the champions’ preparations.

“It’s tough, yeah, but it’s not like a boot camp or anything. It’s more about having an open mindset, trying and learning new things. Trying to focus on the detail. Last year was a bit different because we were trying to learn everything from scratch – his style of play – but now it’s about trying to sharpen up the things we learnt last year to progress as a team.”

“Physically it’s demanding, for sure, but it’s more about trying to evolve as a player.”

Columbus were an engrossing watch last season. They played a possession-based, high-pressing style that places enormous physical and mental demands on the players. The Crew are slick and incisive in their play but there’s a sense that they are always right on the edge, pushing themselves to the very limit, as if a single misstep or misplaced pass could see the whole thing collapse. They tread the line between genius and insanity.

What they are, undoubtedly, is a lot of fun. That comes from the freedoms that Wilfried Nancy allows his players on the ball, provided that they are willing to put in the work out-of-possession.

Morris explains: “There are those principles that we have to abide by, but then within that Wilfried and his coaching staff do a really good job of allowing us to express ourselves. There are guidelines, but then within that you can be yourself and express the player that you are.”

Comeback kid

The 2023 triumph was the second time that Morris has been crowned MLS Cup champion. In 2020, aged just 19, he was drafted in for the final against New England Revolution after the late omission of Darlington Nagbe. In doing so he became the youngest player to start in MLS Cup, a record he still holds to this day.

He had made just ten senior appearances before being thrown in for the season finale but he repaid the faith, helping his side to a hard-fought 3-0 victory against reigning champions Seattle Sounders. But after scaling such heights he was soon bought crashing down to earth.

The following season was cut painfully short for Morris after he suffered a serious anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury in an early CONCACAF Champions League tie against Real Esteli. He did not feature for a single minute of the Crew’s 2021 league campaign as champions and watched from the stands as his side slumped to a ninth-placed finish in the Eastern Conference, failing to even make it to the playoffs.

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It was a nightmare season for all involved and one that must have been particularly trying for Morris, a young player forced to put on hold a career that had barely began. And yet now, looking back at that season on the sidelines, he is determined to draw the positives from that experience.

It sucked, but if I’m being honest I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Looking back I think that year was so important for me. It made me realize how lucky I am to do something I love everyday, to be with people I love. Obviously you want to be out there playing every day but it gave me a fresh perspective of how lucky I am.”

Part of the Crew

While he may now look back upon that time more favorably, the return to first team soccer must have been a daunting one for Morris. He made his comeback in early 2022, still only 20 years old and with just a dozen professional games under his belt. And yet it took him little time to establish himself in the heart of midfield, showing all of the dynamism and bite that had made him such a prodigious young talent.

His return to first team action may well have been eased by his new midfield partner: Nagbe, the man he had stepped in to replace in MLS Cup 14 months earlier. Nagbe was named club captain at the start of the 2022 campaign and, having won MLS Cup with three different teams, offered a wealth of experience that few in MLS could match. Morris, certainly, is only too aware of his importance.

“I try to learn from [Nagbe] every time I get the opportunity, every time I step on the field. Whether it’s training or a game I always look to him. He’s a good role model for me because he’s such a pro; off and on the field. I try to be a sponge with him, to soak up as much information as I can. And he’s also one of my best friends, so it’s nice to play alongside someone I get along so well with.”

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Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris form a winning partnership for Columbus.DREW HORTON COLUMBUS CREW

Morris and Nagbe, more than a decade apart in age, are heading into their third season as a regular pairing in the middle of the Crew midfield. Their understanding was key to Columbus’ high-wire 2023 performances and formed the foundations of the team’s style of play. With so many moving parts each one must function smoothly or the entire contraption will grind to a painful halt.

In the early months when Nancy first took over Morris recalls extensive practice sessions in which each player was drilled on the roles, in and out of possession, to achieve a “second nature” understanding of the expectations. That has not been quite so necessary this year, Morris says, with the vast majority of the 2023 squad remaining at the club.

“I think that only having a few changes this year means we have a good amount of continuity with the group. It’s not easy, at the start of each year, having to build those new relationships on and off the field. But now everyone’s got good relationships, good chemistry.”

‘They want to beat the champ’

After last year’s triumph the Crew’s off-season has, in stark contrast to their dizzying on-field style, featured very little movement. But while the squad is largely the same the task at hand is now very different. Namely, become the first team in more than a decade to retain MLS Cup.

The last team to do so was the iconic LA Galaxy side that featured the likes of Landon Donovan and David Beckham. The fact that no team since 2012 has won back-to-back titles is a testament to MLS’ competitive nature, a league with in-built parity at its very heart.

And yet now Morris’ sights are set on making history. It’s a level of ambition that is typical of this Columbus side, one unwilling to deviate from their chosen route and near-unstoppable when they get up to speed. It’s something that Morris clearly feels he and his teammates are capable of, no matter the competition that they come up against.

“I think we’re a good team, but it would say a lot more about us if we can go and do it again. I think we have such a great style of play, a great group of players and a great group of guys.

“There’s no reason why we can’t do it again, just sticking to who we are and our values. It’s fun defending a title. You get everyone’s best because they want to beat the champ.”

That sentiment is at the very core of Columbus Crew’s success last year. There’s an insatiable appetite for a challenge and a real confidence that they can meet it. On the field they take risks and concede goals, willing to lose a game to give themselves a better chance of winning it. It’s no surprise to see that their ambitions have already been raised, new targets have been set, and the free-scoring, free-wheeling Crew are out to do the same in 2024.


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