Nil - nil going into the half on Thursday night, RSL didn't look bad, but they didn't look fantastic, either. To be fair, Santa Tecla didn't look particularly dangerous, either. When Santa Tecla scored against the run of play on a ball that rolled between goalkeeper Jeff Attinella's legs, Real Salt Lake didn't look like a team that was going to be able to pull together a win to all but secure their slot in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals. It was a scenario we've seen all-too-often this season and I was bracing myself for kissing our CCL dreams goodbye.
But Jeff Cassar wasn't willing to let it go at that, and he made two substitutions that he knew would change the course of the game -- Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales for rookie Pecka and steadfast box-to-boxer, Luke Mulholland. Immediately, RSL was a different team. They looked aggressive, they looked hungry, they weren't giving up loose balls, and they looked ready to score. But it wasn't until Cassar made another change that the goals started coming. Six minutes later, to chants of "El Bur-ri-to", Juan Manuel Martinez came on for Sebastian Jaime, and a minute after that, Olmes Garcia scores an equalizing goal, assisted by the Maestro, Javier Morales. Minutes later, Javi assists what would end up being the game-winning goal scored by none other than Burrito himself.
It's maybe an extreme example, but what we've seen since the arrival of Juan Manuel Martinez is the team we have been waiting to see since the change from a diamond midfield to the 4-3-3. Remember when we were a team that could string 10, 20 passes together? It's come back in the few games that Burrito has played in. I'm not going to say that Martinez is the answer to all of Real's woes, but it's fairly obvious that his presence pushes the rest of the team to perform better than we've seen all season.
RSL's playoff hopes haven't quite been dashed yet, and the glimmer of hope left is largely due to the current run of form that's been a result of the last several games since El Burrito joined the squad. But the disappointing result from Sunday's game highlights a particularly distressing issue: RSL needs Javier Morales.
On Sunday at Avaya Stadium, RSL ran out the exact same lineup that defeated the LA Galaxy -- a team stacked with aces -- with one important difference: Luis Silva filling in for an injured Javier Morales.
Let's be honest; Silva is a great player. He's creative, he combines with his teammates, he's been an excellent addition to the team. But he's not Javi. And apparently that matters. It matters because we saw it on Thursday, when a lackluster team suddenly turned a 180 when Javi and Kyle came on, and we saw it on Sunday when practically the same team failed to shine quite as bright without Morales. And as we've seen RSL play squads without one or all three of these key pieces and flounder, they look together and purposeful when they're on the field. And that's what has me worried.
Whatever youth elixir Javi has been drinking this season has been working -- when other players would be considering retirement, he's having arguably the best season of his career. But that's just the thing, Javi is a ticking clock, and at some point, the hands are going to come together and that's it, he'll be gone, and as we've seen, it's impossible to replace him.
I was asked last night what I thought RSL would do when Javi retires. Who takes his place? Or, more specifically, do I see Burrito in that role over the next few years after Morales retires. What I said at the time was that, rather than relying on a single, central playmaker orchestrating the play, RSL will need more from more of the team -- it will be a combination of players, I said, it will be Plata and Silva and Burrito, and it will be more distributed and less important for there to be a central figure. But I think I was wrong, and I think Sunday showed us that, and I'm more worried about the future. For so long, it was just assumed that Gil would take over for Javi, and maybe that's still true, but it's going to be at least a year of Gil starting in that role, if not more, before we will see if that experiment even works and so far the results have left something to be desired.
I do think that Burrito and Plata and Silva will be important pieces to the team moving forward. But the colors glow just a little bit brighter when Javi is around than they do when he's not, the team clicks and things work in a way that they didn't in San Jose. Maybe Javi doesn't retire in the offseason. Maybe we have another year, or even two, with him on the team. As consistent as his health has been the last couple years, it doesn't take much to end that in a second and Real Salt Lake is left without a deputy for the position. As we saw this summer when he was gone with the national team for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, many of the same things could be said about Kyle Beckerman.
RSL's playoff hopes aren't quite shot yet, but we're rapidly approaching the realm of snowballs in Hades. Based on recent evidence, those chances are even slimmer without a few, very specific, key figures in the starting 11. Thinking beyond just this season, though, we've seen in the last couple years that the offseason can be brutal and 2017 will be another expansion year. I'm excited about the new generation of RSL players -- guys like Jordan Allen, Sebastian Saucedo, Elias Vasquez and, yes, Aaron Maund. But between players getting older and getting snatched by other teams, these guys are going to have to develop quickly if we hope to plug some potential holes left by the senior members of the squad right now. And this is more than just individual talent and performance, because players like Kyle and Javi and Chris Schuler and Tony Beltran and Nick Rimando provide more than just solid in-game performances. They are leaders of the team on the field and off the field and when they are gone, their absences are deeply felt.