SANDY, Utah — There is little debate having Javier Morales in the lineup makes Real Salt Lake a better team.
The Argentine's creativity, ability on the ball, and vision are as good as anyone in MLS. But on Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium, he used something he seldom does to help the team: his head. Morales is always using his mind, but this time it was the top of his head that put the ball in the back of the net after a beautiful cross from Alvaro Saborio gave RSL the 1-0 lead, and ultimately, the win over Chivas USA.
"That was a great [cross] for Sabo," said Morales. "I was in the box, and he just hit the spot, and I put the ball on the net, but I thank Sabo for that goal.
"[It was] my third one in my career. I don't have too many," joked Morales about using his head to score.
Besides scoring the game's lone goal, it was a big step for Morales to go nearly a full 90 minutes — he was subbed off in the 89th minute. Morales tore his lateral meniscus in the preseason, and is only now getting close to being 100 percent. It has been a long road for the playmaker.
"[I'm] very pleased for him to come back after so many difficult injuries over the past couple years," said RSL head coach Jason Kreis. "To get his first start at home tonight, to get the goal that wins the game for us is huge. He also played quite a few nice passes. On another night, we score three or four and he has those assists that he typically does."
Morales acknowledged he wasn't his typical self in the game's opening minutes, but he was able to overcome that to be the hero on the night.
"I have to focus a little more because I knew I missed a couple passes in the first half," said Morales. "I just have to focus in the second half, and I think I played better in the second half."
There certainly were glimpses of the Morales of old — the one that earned an MLS Best XI nod in 2010. But the 33-year-old feels he is not quite there just yet.
"I know I have to keep working to get fit. Every week, every game, it is going to take a little while, but I'm getting close," he said.
And he is consciously making that effort to get there. In the 89th minute and just before he was to be subbed off, Morales made a full-out sprint down the left wing for a ball that he knew 'keeper Dan Kennedy was going to get to. But the effort was there.
"That is what I was thinking at that moment," he said about working on his fitness even during crunch-time of a game.
So how does the former All-Star feel after the much-needed win at home?
"Tired, but happy," he said. "It will take maybe a couple more games to get 100 percent again, but I'm very happy."