Javier Morales is out of contract at the end of the year. That's no big secret. Garth Lagerwey and Jason Kreis have been pretty forthcoming about it, and both seem relatively hopeful that the player will stay with the club.
He's part of the heartbeat of our side, really, and in a season in which we've lost three big players (Espindola, Olave and Johnson), retaining Morales should be of a high priority. Too much of a drop-off too fast would signal a dire rebuilding phase, and while I'm not convinced that four core players is too many all at once, there certainly is that risk.
But squad morale and cohesion aside, we should also wonder what would happen tactically if RSL's number 10 - er, 11 as a 10 - were to hop off to, say, Mexico.
It's a well-established fact that the diamond midfield 4-4-2 was put into place because Jason Kreis felt it fit the players he had at his disposal. He tinkered a bit, but settled on this. In an interview with him earlier this year, he told me that part of that inspiration may have been drawn from the Argentinian predilection for that same system.
From the archive: Javier Morales after 125 games
Kreis said it was because of the players he had available to him, emphasizing the plural aspect - Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales are perhaps the two big pieces here. But I'd pin it almost entirely on Javier Morales, as well as the success of the system - and subsequent failings of it in the late months of this season.
Morales is very much a player in transition. He's gone from a sprightly player with an eye for quick bouts of dazzling skill to one a little more deliberative on the ball. There's not a big issue with this, but systematically, Javier's transition has forced a tactical transition. His dip in technical dazzliness (a word I've just vomited on the page, thank you very much) has led to his being closed down and tackled more easily.
Frankly, it's led to this "hack-a-Javi" notion - one which I reject as somehow unusual for a player in that position. Playmakers get hacked down all the time in every league. Yes, it's an issue, but it's not a particularly new one. Indeed, I'd say it's been an issue for some time, but it's only more recently come to bear by the dip in speedy technical play. As such, the ease in which Javier has been shut down at times this season - and it's more than just "packing the midfield" or "parking the bus" - has hurt the side.
But the failure of the side late on isn't just down to Javier Morales. Far from it, even. We've needed more creativity from deeper in the midfield, and a retooled focus toward that in the offseason will allow the playmaker to again focus on doing just that. By forcing defenders and midfielders to consider the danger from other positions, we can, I think, tweak our diamond enough to keep it effective. That's surely the goal, and while it doesn't mean we'll necessarily keep the diamond running, it does lend some credence to that perspective.
If Javier Morales leaves, though, do we keep the diamond? Let's think for a moment about the pieces we've got that might replace him: Luis Gil, Sebastian Velasquez, David Viana. Those are certainly three good pieces, but there are some issues to consider with all three.
Luis Gil is, by all measures, a very good player. His passing and movement is top-notch, and he's always got an eye for a bit of trickery. However, he doesn't always spot the killer passes as we need for that position, and that is a little worrying if he's to play in that spot full-time. He also doesn't demand the ball nearly as often as needed, and that's something that comes with maturity. He'll get there. Would he do well in Javier's stead? Probably, but it would be a rough transition. But as we've seen in his time at RSL, he always looks a bit better deeper in the midfield where play can run through him naturally.
Sebastian Velasquez is fantastic in his dribbling and ball retention. These are two vital assets for an attacking playmaker in our system, and I'm inclined to think he'd do very well here. He'd need to work a bit on the killer pass, but I think the elements are all there for a very effective option. But it's worth raising a question: Is he ready? He's got the skill, but he's only in his second professional year. It's a risky move, but perhaps one that pays dividends.
David Viana is more of an unknown element. From all I've seen of him, he's been a good player cutting inside from out wide, but that's only been in his very short time with RSL. I will refrain from passing judgment until he's gone through a full preseason, but he's certainly a promising option in our midfield.
The more I think about it, the more I think we'd need to pick up somebody if we end up Javier-less - if just to quell the inevitable uprising of dissent. I'm inclined to think we'll keep him, but if we don't, well - it'll make for a hellish offseason.
There is always the possibility that without Javier Morales, we'll move to a new tactical setup. It's far from being ruled out — perhaps even with him — and that may well depend on the strikers brought in to partner Alvaro Saborio. There are plenty of other options available to us — perhaps a 4-3-3 with attacking midfielders occupying the wide spots, a la Pires or Zidane, or perhaps we'd move to a 4-2-3-1 with three attacking midfielders out there.
But Jason Kreis is certainly not married to the diamond midfield. (And if he is, somebody should tell his wife.) Will we see it next season? Let's wait until we know if we see Javier Morales next season until we start really going crazy with that one.