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Morrow reflects on UEFA

Mike Monaco | Monday, October 8, 2012

Editor’s note: This is the sixth of a new Observer feature. The “Waking the Echoes” series intends to inform fans about some former players and will feature weekly stories profiling them and their lives since Notre Dame.

It was a late summer night in Philadelphia. The MLS All-Star team trotted out its best 11 players to take on European powerhouse Chelsea in a high-profile exhibition match.

One of those MLS starters was former Irish defender and current San Jose Earthquakes defender Justin Morrow. The 2010 Notre Dame graduate and his fellow MLS superstars defeated the defending UEFA Champions League winners 3-2 in dramatic fashion when forward Eddie Johnson scored in the 91st minute to break the stalemate.

For Morrow, a first-time All-Star who earned four monograms for the Irish between 2006 and 2009 before he was drafted in the second round of the 2010 MLS SuperDraft by the Earthquakes, it was a surreal experience to top some of the world’s best players.

“It was a great feeling,” Morrow said. “I mean, being a first-time All-Star, you don’t really know what to expect. A lot of those guys know each other already. I was happy to do well on the field and I thought all the All-Stars played really well and we had a good time. I think what helped me enjoy it so much was how good we were and the fact that we won. And just to be all smiles after the game and not be disappointed, I think that made it extra special.”

The 25-year-old was named an All-Star in just his first season as a full-time starter. Morrow, who leads the Earthquakes in minutes played while splitting time between left back and center back, said it was a tremendous honor to be named an All-Star.

“It was an honor; it was definitely humbling,” Morrow said. “I keep on saying I was representing my team … because there are so many guys that deserve it. And then being on a team with all the MLS guys, that was great. Meeting everybody in the league that I had been around for a long time, that was really special.”

Morrow was honored by the Monogram Club for his All-Star accolade during halftime of Notre Dame’s 1-0 win over Oregon State on Sept. 7 at Alumni Stadium. Notre Dame’s Department of Athletics and the Monogram Club presented Morrow with a collage highlighting his illustrious career with the Irish.

“That was a really special weekend for me to be able to come back,” Morrow said. “That was the first time I had been back on campus since I left. It’s been a while. Just to see familiar faces, see some new faces, see how the campus has changed but still get back and see everything was incredible.”

Morrow said it was always his goal to play professional soccer. He set up his course load so he could graduate in three-and-a-half years and then enter the MLS draft. Despite his foresight, Morrow said the dream didn’t come into clear focus until after the 2009 season, his senior year.

“You never know how your career is going to work out,” Morrow said. “There are a lot of young athletes who were amazing in high school but just don’t turn out the way they would hope. So I don’t think [the MLS] clearly came [into view] until after my senior season, or right at the end of my senior season, when I started getting accolades and MLS teams started being interested in me.”

Morrow was an Irish team captain during his senior year and garnered second-team all-Big East honors. He appeared in 89 career matches, including 64 starts, and helped Notre Dame to two Big East regular-season titles and four straight NCAA tournament appearances, including trips to the quarterfinals during his freshman and sophomore campaigns.

Morrow played in 21 matches for the Irish as a freshman, but he never cracked the starting lineup. During his next three seasons, though, he started all but four games. Morrow said Irish coach Bobby Clark was key to his development as a player.

“[Clark] just wouldn’t take any nonsense, any distractions,” Morrow said. “He totally cut that out of our lives. … He would always have his little things about being on time, being disciplined and whatnot, and when he is giving you reminders of those little things every day, things like going to bed at the right time, staying away from parties. It just really teaches you how to be a good professional and a good person as well. That’s what I remember most.”

In addition to the “extreme discipline” Clark instilled in his players, Morrow said he benefited from a Notre Dame soccer program that requires hard work. A self-described hard worker and leader-by-example, Morrow said he grew into those roles thanks to the people around him.

“I think I grew into that,” Morrow said. “I mean, I was always a hard worker, but the way the system is set up at Notre Dame soccer it just presses you to be a harder worker. Everyone on our team was so dedicated and everyone wanted to play so hard. They were always looking to go a step further than the guy next to you so you could stay on the field.”

That competitive nature has spilled over into the professional ranks, where former Irish teammate and current Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler has been duking it out with Morrow’s Earthquakes for the MLS Supporter’s Shield, won by the team with the best record.

“It’s funny, it’s almost like I am going up against Besler and competing for this thing like we are in college competing,” Morrow said. “It’s fun.”

San Jose currently has a five-point on edge on Kansas City for the Shield, thanks in large part to Morrow’s defensive presence. The team rewarded its left back Thursday with a new contract.

“I just had a really good feeling about staying in San Jose,” Morrow said. “I think the club is headed in a great direction with the way the team has performed this year, and the coaching staff that we have as well as our president and general manager. … We are going to have a beautiful new stadium, and seeing how that has transformed cities and teams, like Kansas City, who didn’t have a nice stadium in the past, now they have one. It’s just an incredible atmosphere there, so I think San Jose can be like that and I am looking forward to being a part of it.”

Contact Mike Monaco at [email protected]