There was a time, tucked neatly between the end of last season and the beginning of this one, in which the future of one Javier Morales was all but certain. It wasn't exactly a comfortable situation, not knowing if the man who had made such an indelible mark on Real Salt Lake would be returning, but it was the one in which we had been placed.
Javier Morales is 33 years old: anything but young for a professional soccer player, particularly one who is tasked with traversing the pitch. This after he suffered an injury that cost him most of a season and nearly cost him the remainder of his career: That broken ankle haunted considerations about his fitness to continue at the club.
Which isn't to say he hadn't proven himself before: The season after coming back from that horrid injury, the player known affectionately as Javi started 17 consecutive matches from June to October in 2012, and in most of those, he played the full 90 minutes. That's a difficult task for any player, but for one whose season start was plagued by injury, it spoke volumes of his mentality and ability to recover from injury.
That didn't stop the questions during the offseason: Could he recapture the form that made him a vaunted name among fans, coaches and players alike? Was he capable of the movement and running necessary? Was he, in fact, the best choice for Real Salt Lake?
The answer, by now, should be unequivocal. Javier Morales has started 2013 in fine form; he's on-track to best his personal goalscoring record (seven goals in 2010 — in fewer than half the matches in 2013, he's scored three) and has pulled in three assists so far, but importantly, he's been at the heart of move after move for RSL. Throw in the fact that he's covering as much ground as before — if not more — and it becomes harder and harder to doubt the player has the same ability to make a mark.
Javier Morales, Jan. 2013:
"Last year, in the beginning of the year, I said, 'I want to be healthy,' because I was coming from a huge injury," Morales said. "I tried to be healthy all year, tried to just play games and get minutes, but now I'm ready. After that year, I'm very healthy, so I hope I can be the same player as before."
Nobody would doubt that Morales has been a different player since that injury. If there is one thing that illustrated that, it was the relative paucity of magical moments during 2012 — which isn't to say he wasn't effective. He was. But he wasn't the sparkling, dazzling playmaker everyone remembered. There was never much of a chance he would be exactly the same, though: He's 33 now, and that's not young. Players change over time — the trick is to make positive changes.
So Javier Morales is a different player, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Rather than relying on guile and trickery on the ball to beat players, his movement off the ball and crisp, insightful passing can do it. There are still moments of the guile, and there are perhaps more than at this time last year — but the set of tools he uses and, indeed, the side around him have both changed. Nobody expects a 33-year-old to submit himself to the challenges he faced when he skipped past players with regularity.
The question, then: Is Javier Morales the same player? No. But can he impact Real Salt Lake in the same way? It's hard to argue with that, consider he's been showing that week-in, week-out.