Sandy • If fans somehow don’t recognize him already, Javier Morales will be easy to spot when Real Salt Lake takes on lowly Toronto FC at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday.
He’ll be the one wearing the giant smile.
The star midfielder is expected to make his first start of the year at home, after finally overcoming the injuries that made the start of this Major League Soccer season almost as dreary and frustrating as the last one. No longer must Morales worry about that pain in his ankle or the tug in his leg. No more must he battle the worry, the self-doubt, the fear.
Finally, the maestro of the RSL attack is ready to play again, in front of his home fans with no strings attached.
“I feel happy,” Morales said, beaming. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for a couple of months. Now I’m playing, I’m healthy. So I’m very happy, and I want to keep going. … I’m looking for games, for minutes.”
That’s probably bad news for Toronto.
The Reds are just one loss away from tying the record for the worst start in league history — the Kansas City Wizards were 0-7-0 in 1999 — with a defense that leaks goals. They have allowed 13 in six games, while scoring only four times and stirring speculation about how long coach Aron Winter might last in his job, despite his assurance that the team will make the playoffs.
“The moment we get the first points everything is going to turn,” Winter told reporters earlier this week. “And I believe in it. We’re going to fix it.”
Morales and RSL, meanwhile, are back home after a three-game road stretch that delivered just one point in the standings — although that was just enough to pull even with San Jose for first place in the MLS Western Conference.
The team lost twice, and drew at FC Dallas on Wednesday night, along the way enduring two red-card ejections and a hotly disputed penalty kick.
At least Morales was able to work his way back into the lineup during that stretch, too.
The 31-year-old Argentine had made only one start in the first five games — a road victory at Portland — as he recovered from offseason ankle surgery. Then, he strained his hamstring in a substitute appearance against Montreal, keeping him out of the next two games.
All that, after missing most of last season with a shattered ankle.
But Morales started and played 77 minutes in a 3-1 loss last weekend at San Jose, where he and his teammates had to work extra hard once RSL went two men down due to the red cards. He said he felt good then, and proved it by playing the full 90 at FC Dallas just four days later, impressing his teammates even more.
“Javi always looks good,” defender Chris Wingert. “It’s always good to see Javi out there.”
Coach Jason Kreis said Morales still is working his way to full fitness, after basically missing preseason training, and still must refine his touch and catch up to the speed of play during games. All of that simply takes time.
“He’s just behind the curve a little bit,” Kreis said.
But he’s doing his best to catch up.
Morales spent quite a lot of time after practice on Friday working on his set pieces, launching corner kicks toward plastic dummies assembled in the penalty box and trying to curl free kicks over a wall of them and into the goal. Morales said it might take a while for him to get completely back into his form and rhythm, after spending so long on the sideline.
“But I’m feeling good,” he said. “So that’s the most important thing. The soccer is coming, you know? If you play, the soccer is coming.”
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Real Salt Lake vs. Toronto FC
P At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy
Kickoff • 7 p.m.
TV • CW30
Radio • 700 AM, 1600 AM, 102.3 FM
Records • RSL 5-3-1, Toronto FC 0-6-0
Regular-season Series • Tied, 4-4-2
Last Meeting • Toronto 1, RSL 0 (Aug. 13, 2011)
About RSL • It’s seeking its first victory since its last home game, a 2-0 victory over Colorado on April 7. … Forward Fabian Espindola leads the team with three goals, and figures to return to the lineup, along with defender Jamison Olave, after serving a one-game red-card suspension. … It has won four of the five home meetings with Toronto. … It’s 4-0-0 when scoring first and leading at halftime. … Rookie forward Emilio Bonfigli probably earned himself a spot on the 18-man game-day roster by scoring the equalizer in a 1-1 draw at FC Dallas on Wednesday.
About Toronto • One loss away from the worst start in league history, it has scored only four goals all season. … One of them came from forward Ryan Johnson, who was drafted by RSL in 2006, before a series of trades landed him with the Reds. … The team plays an unusual 4-3-3 formation, though forward Danny Koevermans is doubtful with a groin injury. … Midfielder Torsten Frings is one of the team’s three designated players, along with Koevermans and midfielder Julian de Guzman. … It has allowed the first goal in every game.