Casa Grande, Ariz. • Seated on a bench inside the dark gymnasium, Javier Morales ponders time. He’s 34 now, one of the transcendent players in Major League Soccer; a player coming off the best year of his career, yet with another grinding season having worn down the tread.
The Argentinian midfielder is showing no immediate signs of slowing down. Real Salt Lake’s preseason camp is about utilizing those seven weeks between seasons, between the heartbreak and desire, to get back into the flow of things.
Real Salt Lake’s core group of players is another year older entering the 2014 season. The key players and their ages:
Javier Morales » 34
Nick Rimando » 34
Nat Borchers » 32
Alvaro Saborio » 31
Kyle Beckerman » 31
Chris Wingert » 31
Ned Grabavoy » 30
Season openerRSL at L.A. Galaxy
March 8, 8:30 p.m.
TV » Ch. 4
Or at least start the process.
And the process for RSL is tight, both in timing of preparation for 2014 as well as opportunity. Morales is one of several faces of the franchise. He’s been an All-Star. But he’s 34, and the 11-month-long seasons will eventually catch up.
"I’ve been talking with a friend and he’s been retired for some time, and I ask, ‘When do you feel that change?’ I know the years are going forward," Morales said, "but I don’t feel any different."
RSL’s core, its collection of players who helped transform a once-lowly franchise into a champion and a contender, is another year older. The 2013 season was a combination of veterans delivering and youngsters emerging. Yet, the starting lineup of last year’s MLS Cup final — a starting 11 that should remain the same if everybody stays healthy — has an average age of nearly 30.
"With this group, staying hungry is just so important," said 32-year-old defender Nat Borchers. "Being motivated to be better is just so important for this group. When we’re under the gun and we’re really under pressure, I think we’re really at our best."
Which is good for RSL. It is still out to prove that its 2009 MLS championship wasn’t a fluke. But since that night in Seattle, RSL has lost three cup finals — Champions League, U.S. Open Cup and MLS Cup.
"It never changes for us, right?" asked goalkeeper Nick Rimando. "We go out there every year trying to win a championship, so that’s the ultimate goal."
Outside of Luis Gil, Chris Schuler, Tony Beltran and Robbie Findley, seven of the club’s probable starters are over 30.
Could 2014 be yet another year in which pundits blow off RSL? It’s a World Cup year, under a new regime and RSL will most likely be without Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Alvaro Saborio for significant chunks of time.
"Continually, and a lot like in year’s past, I think people are going to doubt us, saying we’re probably going to fall off a little bit this year," Beltran said. "So maybe that’ll be somewhat of a challenge."
When RSL went through their exit interviews with general manager Garth Lagerwey after the MLS Cup final loss in December, the response to the thud of the disappointing ending was finding a way to win another trophy with this core.
"They understand what their legacy is," Lagerwey said. "Are we one of the best teams of all time, or are we just a team that was pretty good consistently? The insult that started to come up last year was [we were] a regular-season team. Nobody wants to finish with that as their legacy."
Borchers said the Supporters’ Shield remains a main goal, that this specific group wants another crack at Champions League and another at the U.S. Open Cup. Morales said he still believes that, despite the years adding up, this group has what it takes to add at least another trophy to the halls of Rio Tinto Stadium.
"We can accomplish more with this group, we can get better, we deserve better and something special so we can really stamp a name for ourselves in history, saying, ‘that RSL team was really, really good,’ " Beltran said.
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