Anybody who knows anything about soccer has the same reaction TV commentator Ray Hudson did the first time he saw Lewis Morgan play in an Inter Miami uniform:
“The lad’s a proper footballer.”
That is what David Longwell thought when he first spotted Morgan dribbling down the field as a scrawny 16-year-old in Scotland. It was at the 2013 Scottish Football Association exit trials, the annual tryout where teenage boys who were released by youth academies can showcase their talents for other clubs.
Glasgow Rangers had let Morgan go. The knock on him was that he was too diminutive to handle the physicality of the Scottish league. Longwell was the St. Mirren academy coach at the time.
“Lewis is what you would classify as a late developer,” said Longwell, reached in England, where he is now the academy director at Shrewsbury. “I was watching one of those exit trials games and Lewis caught my eye because even though he was very small at the time, he was very good with the ball. He moved quite well.
“So, I turned to another coach and asked ‘Who’s that kid?’ and he said, ‘Oh, he used to be at Rangers, blah, blah, blah.’ I was like, ‘Alright’. Watched a little bit more of him. At the end of the exit trial you have to make a note of interest. It was only ourselves and one other club. He stood out to me because of his technical ability, but a lot of clubs overlooked him because he hadn’t developed physically yet.”
Morgan went on to lead St. Mirren to a Scottish Championship and promotion to the Premiership, sign with Celtic, and eventually land in MLS with Inter Miami, where he leads the team with five goals and seven assists heading into Wednesday night’s road game at FC Dallas.
Morgan is a big reason Miami is hanging onto the 10th and final Eastern Conference playoff spot with three games remaining.
What he lacked in physical strength he made up for with work ethic, which is no surprise considering his upbringing. Morgan is from Greenock, a blue-collar Scottish port town known for shipbuilding and electronics manufacturing.
His father, Donald, runs a printing company. His mother, Veronica, owns a cleaning business. His older brother, Donald, who taught him to play, works at a factory that makes medical equipment. Sister Gillian is a lawyer in London. Another sister Natalie works for a charity in Australia, and youngest Melanie is a college student studying accounting and finance.
“Lewis is a top, top person, comes from a great family, and is always willing to learn,” Longwell said.
St. Mirren signed him to a two-year contract, and thus his career was launched. He spent four years there. In January 2018, he signed a four-year deal with Celtic and made his first appearance for Scotland’s national team.
He was loaned back to St. Mirren to finish the 2018 season and made his Celtic debut that summer. Morgan made 31 appearances for Celtic including seven in the Champions League. Eager for more playing time, he spent the second half of the 2018-19 season on loan at Sunderland in England’s League One.
Last winter, he got the call from Inter Miami, the MLS expansion club co-owned by David Beckham and Jorge and Jose Mas. They offered Celtic a reported $390,000 transfer fee to get him. He was impressed with their ambition. He spoke to Johnny Russell, a Scottish player with Sporting Kansas City, who told him a move to MLS was “a no-brainer.”
Longwell, who had worked at academies with Orlando City and the New York Red Bulls, agreed.
His parents also urged him to go. “We told Lewis that if you go to America and are successful, it will open doors,” said his father, Donald, reached by phone in Scotland. “Even though it was hard to watch him go so far away, we felt MLS would be a better platform for him.”
Morgan packed his bags, and his longtime girlfriend, budding artist Heather Bain, followed him to South Florida.
“It’s been a tough adjustment for both of us being so far from home, especially during COVID, without family, completely different culture and weather, but it’s been a great experience,” Bain said. “Lewis’ Spanish has gotten really good and he is very happy.”
Bain’s constant support has been “massive,” Morgan said. His parents flew to Miami in February and planned to watch him play the club’s first few home matches, but COVID-19 forced the suspension of the league, so they have yet to watch him play in person.
Instead, they watch on their computer in the middle of the night from Scotland.
“So much of football is how the stars align, and everything needs to fall perfectly into place for you to be a success,” said Morgan, the 24-year-old winger. “We had loads of top players at Celtic, so no one played every game. I wanted to play every single game, and I was lucky enough Inter Miami gave me that chance.
“It was a tough decision. I had other options in UK, but this interested me right away. I have no regrets.”
He enjoys the team’s Latin influence and says the obsession with statistics in U.S. sports has helped and motivated him.
Hudson, the former Fort Lauderdale Strikers star and Miami Fusion coach, had the same reaction as Longwell the first time he saw Morgan play.
“His quality came shining through from the first time I saw him, and he has unquestionably been the most pleasant of surprises on this team,” said Hudson. “If you play for Glasgow Celtic, you’re going to have quality, so you knew by his resume that he’s worked his way up the ladder. He’s a proper footballer. He has that connection between quick feet and eyes and brain that allow him to make quick decisions.
“He’s more than an athlete. He’s an entertainer, but not a showman. He does it with his football, which always leads to something positive. I love the kid. He’s an absolutely smashing player. I’ve told my friends in Newcastle, `You should see this kid play.’”
Although he remains rather slight at 5-10 and 163 pounds, and some of his teammates have bigger names, Morgan has been, arguably, the team’s most valuable player.
Morgan ranks third in the league with 87 Shot Creating Actions. He also handles all Miami corner kicks, including the one that led to Leandro Gonzalez Pirez’s game-winning goal against Orlando City last Saturday.
Morgan credits Longwell for believing in him.
“I may be biased, but I don’t think there’s any coach in the world at the youth level that develops more players than he has,” Morgan said. “His track record speaks for itself. He was competing against Celtic and Rangers and quite often picking up players that were discarded by these other clubs and turning them into top footballers that went on to play in the English Premier League and for Scotland.”
Morgan would be an even bigger star, Hudson said, if MLS stadiums had been open this season.
“Had the crowds been allowed in the stadiums, they would have been walking away saying, `The Scotsman is the best player on the team.’”