When he’s healthy, Javier Morales is probably the best player on Real Salt Lake, and surely one of the best in all of Major League Soccer.
That’s just the thing, though.
The star midfielder has had a hard time staying on the field — first because of the horrific ankle injury he suffered last season, and now because of a string of other frustrating injuries, the latest being a strained quadriceps muscle that will keep him out of RSL’s latest big road game at Seattle on Saturday.
“I think he’s frustrated more than anyone,” coach Jason Kreis said. “I feel for him. Hopefully, this is a small deal. Hopefully, he caught it before it got too bad and it’s not a big one at all.”
But Morales is 32 years old now, with a lot of soccer on his legs.
He has suffered four separate injuries in little more than the past year — two that required surgery, including the infamously shattered ankle — and managed to make just 15 starts in 46 regular-season games in Major League Soccer since the beginning of last season.
That’s hardly what management wants to see from its highest-paid designated player, the ultra-skilled cornerstone choreographer who so deftly guides the RSL attack when he’s fully fit and in form.
Certainly, it’s not what Morales wants, either.
Not only is he desperate to keep playing the game he loves, but he’s also in the final year of the contract that almost certainly pays him more than the $452,500 that the MLS Players Union reported he earned last season. (Figures for the current season have not been released yet.) He also surely knows that every game he misses is one in which heir apparent Luis Gil is in his place, gaining confidence and experience, hastening the day when he’s viewed as a capable full-time replacement.
Now is not the time to be injured.
Yet general manager Garth Lagerwey said he’s not overly concerned that the troubling past year for Morales is any indication that the Argentine has begun the descent that every athlete eventually must face, no matter how passionate or talented.
“I wouldn’t say we have a long-term concern right now,” Lagerwey said. “But we definitely want to take our time to get him right, so we set him up for success long term.”
While Morales missed training Friday before the team departed for Seattle, Kreis and Lagerwey said they believe he’s still suffering from not being able to participate in preseason training camp. Morales was still recovering then from offseason surgery to remove bone spurs from the same ankle that was broken by a brutal tackle from behind last season.
“Some of my biggest concerns about him not really partaking in any part of the preseason was that my experience has been that when guys aren’t able to get in all of that base work — strengthening and fitness — they end up being injured a lot during the season,” Kreis said.
So far, that has been the case.
Morales worked his way into the lineup slowly at the start of the season, playing three games as a substitute before making his first start in a victory at Portland. But after going 90 minutes in that game, he suffered a hamstring injury in the next that kept him out of the following two games.
He returned as a starter, going the full 90 in three straight games and relishing his return to the field.
“I feel happy,” Morales said just two weeks ago. “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.”
Alas, Morales took himself out in the 28th minute of a scoreless draw in Chicago on Wednesday night with his latest injury. Kreis said he still wasn’t certain about the severity of the injury, and that he would know more by kickoff of a game that RSL players were viewing as crucial.
It’s the third big road game against one of the other top teams in the league, and RSL so far has not fared well in those situations. It lost 1-0 at Sporting KC when it was still unblemished, and fell 3-1 in a controversial game at San Jose in which forward Fabian Espindola and defender Jamison Olave were sent off with red cards, and RSL ceded the MLS Western Conference lead.
Now, the Sounders are trying to leapfrog RSL and the Earthquakes to the top.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us to show how good we are in this league,” defender Nat Borchers said.
Meanwhile, Morales will keep working on yet another return to action.
Lagerwey said he deserves credit for his commitment to coming back from his previous injuries, especially considering Seattle’s Steve Zakuani and FC Dallas’ David Ferreira have not done as well after suffering similarly devastating injuries at about the same time as Morales had his ankle shattered. Remember, Morales was tremendous when RSL destroyed the Sounders at home in last year’s playoffs.
The team is also hoping the schedule finally helps.
After playing in Seattle, RSL has two weeks until its next league game, and another three weeks until the one after that.
“We have to focus on his long-term health as opposed to his short-term health,” Lagerwey said. “We’ll take this opportunity to get Javi healthy for the rest of the season.”
Real Salt Lake at Seattle Sounders
P At Qwest Field, Seattle
Kickoff • 8 p.m. MDT
TV • Channel 4
Radio • 700 AM, 1600 AM, 102.3 FM
Records • RSL 7-3-2, Seattle 7-1-1
Regular-season series • Tied, 2-2-2
Last meeting • RSL 2, Seattle 1 (Sept. 10, 2011)
About RSL • It’s riding a four-game unbeaten streak, but also has not won in four straight road games. … Forward Alvaro Saborio leads the team with four goals. … It has won all five games this season in which it has scored first and taken a lead into halftime. … Goalkeeper Nick Rimando said he’s ready to start, after missing a scoreless draw in Chicago to nurse a shoulder injury.
About the Sounders • Riding a five-game winning streak, they are hoping to jump to the top of the MLS Western Conference with a victory and a San Jose loss or draw against Chivas USA. … Forward David Estrada leads the team with four goals.