Javier Morales hadn't played for Real Salt Lake in nearly three weeks, and endured with his teammates a travel ordeal that seemed to take just about as long.
Yet none of it seemed to show.
With his team needing at least a draw to advance to the knockout rounds of the CONCACAF Champions League, the veteran midfielder came on at halftime and delivered the historic equalizer on a dazzling free kick that gave RSL a 1-1 draw with Toronto FC at BMO Field on Tuesday night.
The goal was the first RSL has ever scored in Toronto.
"We took a big risk by playing Javi," coach Jason Kreis told ESPN Radio 700, "but sometimes big risks reap big rewards."
The draw assured the defending MLS Cup champions will finish in the top two of their group and play in the quarterfinals in February a major accomplishment, in their first tournament appearance Â and rendered much less important their final group-stage game against Mexico's Cruz Azul at Rio Tinto Stadium next month.
It also freed the team to devote all its energy to pursuing the Supporters Shield regular-season title in Major League Soccer, without having to parse the lineup so much for Champions League games.
RSL sits two points behind the league-leading Los Angeles Galaxy, with four regular-season games remaining.
The team endured a long and maddening journey to Toronto, because of flight delays and a missed connection. And for the fifth time in five Champions League games, they fell behind early conceding an impressive left-footed blast by Toronto's Jacob Peterson on a blazing counterattack in the 20th minute.
But this team has learned not to panic.
Once Morales replaced rookie Collen Warner Morales had missed four games with a suspension and a quadriceps injury Â he energized the team, and saved the day by curling a spectacular free kick off the outstretched arm of Toronto's Julian de Guzman and into the net in the 68th minute.
RSL held on to eliminate the Reds from the Champions League knockout rounds, and extend their home winless streak to six games.
"We've done a great job of digging ourselves out of a hole like that in the past and we did it again tonight," defender Chris Wingert said. "We're really proud of the effort and are excited to move forward and play in the knockout rounds."
The team will remain in Toronto another day before traveling to Boston for its league game against the New England Revolution on Saturday night, when its rugged stretch of 14 games in 56 days finally ends. So far, the team is 6-1-6 in that span, and 3-0-2 in the first five of six games in 18 days.
RSL 1, Toronto FC 1
O RSL clinches one of the top two spots in Group A, thereby guaranteeing itself a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals in February.
• Javier Morales, a halftime substitute, converts a free kick to tie the game in the 68th minute.
• Jacob Peterson puts Toronto ahead early with a goal in the 20th minute.
Team W L T Pts
RSL* 3 1 1 10
Cruz Azul* 3 1 1 10
Toronto 1 2 2 5
Arabe Unido 1 4 0 3
Real Salt Lake 1,
Cruz Azul (Mexico) 2, Arabe Unido (Panama) 0
Tuesday, Oct. 19
Toronto vs. Arabe Unido, 6 p.m.
Cruz Azul at RSL, 8 p.m.
*Qualified for quarterfinals
Once the eight quarterfinalists are determined for the CONCACAF Champions League, a new draw will be held to determine the matchups.
Group winners will be pitted against second-place teams, and teams from the same group cannot be drawn against each other. That means RSL cannot meet Cruz Azul, which it plays in the final game of Group A at Rio Tinto Stadium on Oct. 19.
The teams are tied for the group lead with 10 points, and RSL will win the group with a victory over Cruz Azul, but finish second with a draw or loss.
Some prospective quarterfinal opponents for RSL?
The Columbus Crew, Costa Rica's Saprissa, Honduras' Marathon or Olimpia, or Mexico's Santos, Monterrey or Toluca. The quarterfinals begin Feb. 22-23 at the home of the lower-seeded team, with the second leg March 1-3 at the home of the higher seed.