For some time, Javier Morales was hailed as one of the best playmakers in MLS, but after a five-month injury layoff, there have been rumblings that the player is well past his peak. Set to play in his 125th game for Real Salt Lake on Saturday, the talismanic midfielder could start his 15th consecutive match. Just two assists off his 2010 campaign, Morales is looking to continue to make a strong statement: He's still here, and he hasn't changed.
When Morales arrived in 2007, he brought with him a new look for Real Salt Lake: Alongside Fabian Espindola and Matias Mantilla, an Argentine triumvirate emerged at the club, bringing with it an eye for the transcendent. Espindola, thriving at the club after being released and subsequently brought back in early 2009, remains an important player today — but Mantilla didn’t make the cut.
If one player can be said to have become the lifeblood of the Kreis-managed Real Salt Lake era, Javier Morales would be one of those in the argument. The team's all-time assist leader — he found his 41st on a set piece exchange with Espindola - his play has been an indelible influence on the playing style the club employs — and has been a vital cog in the club's machinations.
That he's made such an impact at Real Salt Lake was beyond his expectations, Morales says.
"When I came here in 2007, if you told me that, I wouldn't believe it," Morales says of his five years at the club. "I've spent five years of my life here, with my family. I'm very happy with the club, with the fans, so I appreciate it."
Unsurprisingly, Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis is full of nothing but praise for the the club's enganche, the Argentine term of the classical number 10 literally meaning "hook," since his arrival and subsequent transformative effect.
"We brought him in to be the central figure for us in the attacking half of the field," Kreis says. "He's our playmaker, he's our number 10. He's been a part of every success we've had because of that, because of the contributions he's made in the attacking half of the field."
More than just his playing ability, Morales brings leadership, hard work and character, his manager says.
"He's such a good character and fiery competitor that he gives us a ton of work on the defensive side, as well. He's a complete player for us," Kreis says. "It shows how important he is that when Kyle's out, he gets to wear the captain's armband."
When Morales was stretchered off with a broken ankle in May 2011, questions about his ability to return were raised. Would he be the same player again? Could he even return? His nearly five-month layoff — shorter than nearly anyone predicted, as it was widely thought that he was out for at least the season — ended in late September 2011. He came off the bench in a 3-0 loss to a rampaging Chicago Fire, and while he clearly wasn't back to full fitness yet, he was there, and he wasn't tentative.
The road to his return was rocky, but the player affectionately dubbed "Javi" pushed forward, starting seven consecutive matches, including three playoff performances in which he grabbed three assists and showed some inventive bits of skill. He wasn't back to his "old self" — but he wasn't entirely far off.
The playmaker's quick return in 2011 may have hindered his chances in 2012 as he endured another rocky start: In the first seven matches of the season, he made one start and four substitute appearances, and in early May, he came off after only 28 minutes. His fitness was looking shaky at best, he missed a few matches, and there were again rumblings that he didn't quite have it. Only six starts from 15 matches was hardly the return to form in 2012 he wanted to make.
Initial medical opinion that Morales was suffering from a right quadricep injury proved wide of the mark: Seeking a second opinion, he visited a Mexican doctor who diagnosed the issue as a compressed nerve issue in Javi's back. Five days of physical therapy later, the man who was rumored to have lost it was roaring back into contention. But in hushed tones, every move Morales made following his return was under scrutiny. Every dribble, every cross, every pass: Was he good enough? Was Javier Morales a mere shadow of his old self?
Morales rejects at face value claims that he's past his peak.
"I don't have to respond — I just have to do my work," he says. The determination is palpable. "I have to play, to be my best like always. I don't care what other people say."
Transition: 27 to 32
Javier's halcyon days may not be behind him: He's no longer the 28-year-old at his physical peak as he was in his 15-assist, six-goal 2008 season, but he remains determined to prove that he still has the ability to control the game as he once did. But for his part, he's been pulling in assists and key passes — passes that lead directly to shots — even with RSL at times struggling up front.
But Morales doesn't think his play has changed significantly from 27 years old to 32. Maybe he's right. His vital attributes — his vision, his creativity — remain untouched.
"It's not a big difference," Morales says. "It's not like when you are 10 years old and four years old. I'm feeling good, except my injury last year — but after that, if you take a look, I play most of the game here without any problems. I'm good."
Kreis sees things a little differently. Morales has changed — he's become a better athlete and a better player in the process.
"What he does in the weight room and what he does in his offseason — he's become a complete player, and I think a very, very good professional athlete on top of his soccer abilities, which are second to none," Kreis says with no hint of exaggeration.
Those sparkling runs, the 90 minutes of full intensity: Those things fade and dull with age. Slight adjustments to his playing style were inevitable, but that they were punctuated with a horrific injury only clouded matters. It perhaps served as an impetus for a stylistic change, but Real Salt Lake fans — and the player himself — were robbed of that. There was nothing natural to the transition, and that was perhaps the most painful thing of all.
At 32 years old, Javier Morales may not have the same pace he once had, but his ability to spot a pass, to make a play remains relatively unchanged. He may drift a little wider and he may sit a little deeper, but his influence is untouched. But to suggest he's past it physically ignores few important facts: Morales has made 14 consecutive starts and — save a single-half start against Vancouver as injury concerns briefly cropped up — has been substituted out only twice, and both times only within five minutes of the final whistle as Kreis looked to shore up his side's defensive effort in the midfield.
"He's become more of a two-way player and he's become a better athlete," Kreis says. "He's recognized this is a very physical and athletic league in MLS, and he's been willing to put the extra work in to make himself that much fitter, that much stronger, that much quicker."
125 played, 113 started, and nearly 10,000 minutes
As he approaches his 125th match for the club — it is nearly certain that it will come against Chivas USA on Saturday — an image of the player emerges: The talismanic player, the envy of every other club, Javier Morales took Major League Soccer by storm. His ankle break, along with season and career-disrupting injuries to Seattle's Steve Zakuani and FC Dallas's David Ferreira, shook the league and strengthened calls for player protection.
Javier Morales, in short, became part of MLS's identity, its public face — no small feat.
Through those 125 matches, Morales has led the team (he is, after all, the all-time leader in assists for RSL) and has been a crucial part of the strongest core groups to grace the league. His time's not over: Seven assists, only two behind his 2010 haul, would seem to indicate something significant about his continued ability to impress.
With the 2012 regular season quickly nearing an end, Javier Morales can look back and see a campaign, though spotted at times with injury, which saw him make a full return to fitness while maintaining his inventive and creative stylistic bent.
The Narrow Diamond
With the acquisition of a player so lively, so startlingly efficient in possession, Jason Kreis had no choice but to forge a tactical identity for the club. Morales, alongside his midfield opposite Kyle Beckerman, were the first cogs in the diamond midfield that became RSL's defining feature, its consistent trait.
"When we brought him in, we were very interested in trying to find a system where we could utilize his abilities in the right way," Kreis says. "There were a couple other players in the spine of our team, and we really wanted to try to find a formation that would get them playing at their best."
Rarely abandoned since 2008, the diamond midfield is narrow in its workings, unlike some of its more European counterparts deployed by the likes of Chelsea and, more famously, 2012 Italy. In that way, its easy to find a corollary in systems deployed by Argentine clubs.
The value of the number 10 in Argentina is unrivaled; it is, after all, the nation that produced Maradona, Riquelme, Veron and Messi — four of the best playmakers the world has seen. A system that puts value in the position, that is systemic in its support for creativity, was always likely to be the best solution for Jason Kreis.
It is perhaps no surprise that Jason Kreis turned to a system tried and true, and that it hailed from from Morales' home: Argentina.
"It could be that a coach went down there, did some scouting of some games and liked it, could be," Kreis says when asked about it. And he chuckles — but just a little. It's his wry, knowing chuckle.
With one move, Kreis, through Javi, did more than just define a group of players: He defined a club.