Inside a cramped conference room in a downtown Salt Lake City hotel Thursday afternoon, Javier Morales gripped tight the microphone he held in his right hand. After a week replete with questions and suspense, the Argentine pillar of success explained why 2016 was his last season at Real Salt Lake.
RSL's most decorated attacking player in club history didn't hold back, either. The 36-year-old midfielder, who last Thursday took to Twitter to announce his impending departure from the club, said he was left in a state of shock when, in his player-exit meeting last week with the RSL front office, he was informed his 2017 option would not be picked up.
Morales took it even further, saying that had he started 24 regular-season matches in 2016, his 2017 contract would have been automatically guaranteed as part of the three-year deal he signed with RSL last offseason. In the regular-season finale at Seattle on Oct. 23, Morales was on the bench with 23 starts under his belt. Three days later in the first-round playoff match at the L.A. Galaxy, he started.
"I was thinking they would offer me a new contract or something like that," Morales explained. "But it never happened."
RSL general manager Craig Waibel told The Tribune on Thursday evening that the decision to not start Morales in Seattle did not have anything to do with potential contract incentives.
"It was a tactical decision by the coaching staff," Waibel said.
Morales, who had 49 goals and 81 assists in 240 career regular-season matches in 10 seasons at RSL, said he isn't leaving due to money. He's not blind to the fact that he turns 37 in January.
"But if they asked me to stay, or to find a way to stay here, believe me, today I wouldn't be here talking to you," he said.
So his official goodbye came in a straightforward, emotional press conference 15 miles north of Rio Tinto Stadium, where his wizardry on the ball helped RSL rise from the floormat of MLS a year after his arrival in Utah in 2007. Morales thanked former coach Jason Kreis, former owner Dave Checketts and RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen.
Waibel and RSL coach Jeff Cassar, however, were not mentioned. Morales said after he posted his farewell on his Twitter account last week, he didn't hear from anyone at the club for nearly a week. Morales mentioned a text message from Cassar, but did not divulge its content.
The discussions in the meeting last week never got to stages of potential contract offers or future roles with the club, both Waibel and Morales confirmed. RSL was, Morales explained, looking to go in another direction. Waibel said he does not go into details of individual meetings with any players.
"Unfortunately, it didn't go exactly as scripted," Waibel said. "Not every meeting ends with handshakes and hugs, and there are some very difficult conversations that are had. But I think Javi's a class act. I don't have anything bad to say about him."
Morales said he wished for nothing more than to have his final game as a professional in Sandy, in that familiar No. 11 jersey, walking into the concrete tunnel for the last time, win or lose.
Now, Morales waits. He feels he has at least two years left in him. Asked if he'll stay in MLS or look abroad, he said it's too soon to say.
He's already trying to peek into the future, though. Morales said one day, when he does hang those cleats up for good, he'd like to return to Utah and attend an RSL match while sipping on a cold beer. Uprooting his family has been the most difficult part of these developments. He's had to tell his two young sons that they'll be moving, changing schools. After a decade at RSL, Morales is out to plant his roots elsewhere for a last go in a storied career.
"We belong here," he said. "We are almost from Utah."
Of all the memories — sublime and disheartening — Morales will look back on the MLS Cup title in 2009, of RSL's storied CONCACAF Champions League run in 2011 and his horrific ankle fracture that same year. But he said the outpouring of support after his announcement last week is up there with them all.
"People are saying that the club should put my name somewhere or retire my number," he said. "To be honest, and to be clear, I never in my life played for something like that. I am here today because I always played for the love of the game, for the love of the people, and I feel blessed today because I think I got that back from you."