When Ashtone Morgan made the decision to sign with Real Salt Lake he left behind a town, a team and a club he had called home for his entire career - a place where he not only lifted an MLS Cup, but where he had grown from a boy into a man.
But for Morgan the move was worth it. The excitement and promise of a new start in a new city, with a new team and a new club. However, MLS rules and U.S. immigration regulations brought that anticipation crashing down.
Prior to crossing the border to move from Canada to the United States, Morgan had spent nearly a decade playing with Toronto FC where he made 127 appearances. During his time with Toronto he lifted both the MLS Cup and Supporter’s Shield, as well as five Canadian Championships.
Before turning professional he rose through the ranks of Toronto's academy system, drawing the attention of several European clubs and the Canada National Team. The young defender continued to turn heads and was named the 2011 Canadian U-20 Player of the Year, leading to his eventual signing with the senior team at Toronto FC.
But after nine seasons with the senior team and 11 years with the club, Toronto declined his option and for the first time in his career he was forced to look outside of his hometown.
With years of Western Conference matchups against the Canadian club, the Real Salt Lake front office was familiar with the defender, making it a relatively easy decision to sign the free agent.
“He’s a player we’ve liked and tracked for a long time,” RSL Assistant General Manager Tony Beltran explained. “And when the opportunity came to sign him as a free agent we took it.”
However, due to a lack of international spots and a green card process that was slowed to a near halt during the pandemic, Canada-born Morgan was forced to sit out the entirety of the 2020 Major League Soccer Season, helplessly watching from the sidelines. Living in a foreign city without his loved ones, he was almost completely isolated as protocols from the pandemic limited the team’s ability to do anything outside of scheduled training sessions and games.
“There’s a whole season for me of just being on the sidelines. I knew I had a lot to offer the team and the club, but certain situations happened and I wasn’t able to play,” Morgan explained. “Another frustrating thing was that I had no control over it and no one else had any control over it. All I could do was be the best version of myself for the team and the group in training sessions.”
And so he showed up everyday. Knowing a chance to step on the pitch would not come, Morgan, out of necessity, had to reconcile what it meant to be a part of a team without being able to contribute on gameday.
“Some days were definitely harder than others,” Morgan shared. “I might not have gotten as involved with the team as I would have liked, but this was my 11th season and I’ve seen a lot of different stages of what it means to be a professional. The life of a professional is in my nature, my DNA is just to grind and persevere with emotion, so that’s what I did and what I continue to do.”
However, the monotony of day after day training without the promise of playing anywhere in sight can be draining, leading to frustration and possible burnout.
“I know myself and I know that at first, it will feel like an all-time low,” Morgan said. “But how I go about my business is there’s always a lesson through the massive storm. It definitely made me stronger mentally and physically.”
That mental and physical strength would become a necessity as the team began preparations for the 2021 season.
Despite paperwork issues becoming resolved, depth at the left back position provided yet another obstacle to overcome.
Four games into the 2021 season Morgan got a taste, making his return to the competition pitch 608 days after his last game in Major League Soccer, coming on as a substitute and logging 14 minutes in a 0-0 draw against Nashville SC.
“It brought a tear to the eye, for sure,” Morgan recalled. “Brought joy for me, my family, everybody back home, just to finally wear my jersey.”
The taste however was short-lived.
Two months later his time finally came. With injuries and a three-game week ahead, when a decision was made to rotate the lineup, inserting Morgan into the starting XI against the Colorado Rapids. The team went on to earn a commanding 3-0 win over Colorado, which led to Morgan staying in place for the next game against Houston, yet another defensive shutout.
After not playing for nearly two years, Morgan has now strung together a series of starts with an immediate impact, as Real Salt Lake did not concede a single goal when he was on the pitch.
The left back position is still competitive, players will return from injury and obstacles will arise, all of which Morgan is keenly aware of.
“I know my qualities, I know what I can bring. I just have to tell myself yeah, you still got this, you have a lot in the tank and a lot to prove,” Morgan pensively shared. “Be happy for what has been given to you. Don’t take it for granted because as I know from last year, things can change at the snap of your fingers.”