SANDY, Utah – As Real Salt Lake head into one of their most important games of the season, they might be doing it without Javier Morales.
The playmaking midfielder, the engine behind RSL's offense, didn't practice on Friday, and Salt Lake head coach Jeff Cassar told reporters that Morales will be a game-time decision for Saturday’s Western Conference showdown with the first-place Seattle Sounders at Rio Tinto Stadium (2:30 pm ET; NBCSN, free stream at NBCSports.com).
Morales is still recovering from a hip injury suffered last week in RSL's 3-0 win over D.C. United.
“And this is a true six-point game,” Cassar said. “You can't get back these games against [teams] that are ahead of you.”
A win against the Sounders will vault RSL (10-4-9, 39 points) into first place, albeit Seattle will still have two games in hand. A Seattle victory will put the Sounders up by five points.
Still, in the last few weeks RSL have significantly cut into what was once a nine-point gap.
“We're sniffing around them now,” Cassar said. “We're right there. And the guys sense that. They sensed the urgency of the game against D.C. United. And I think it's getting that part of the season where the guys are really hungry and focused.”
RSL have scored nine goals in their last five games after scoring just six goals in the eight previous games. Morales said he believes the improved offense has resulted from an improved defense – just three goals allowed in the current five-game unbeaten streak.
“We had a chat a couple of weeks ago about [our] defense and, right now, I think everyone's on the same page,” he told reporters. “And it always happens with us – when we defend well, we play well. So now I think we are very organized, the front three, and now we're playing good. I think we create a lot of chances.”
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In their most recent outing, RSL scored three goals in the first 24 minutes and coasted to a win over Eastern Conference power D.C. The Claret-and-Cobalt have rebounded from a miserable midseason stretch of six games in which they posted a 1-1-4 record that began with a 4-0 loss in Seattle on May 31.
“You know, in the middle of the season sometimes it's a grind,” Cassar said. “You're missing players. You've got some hurt players. But now, when you start getting toward the end, you start to really amp it up. Everyone's a little more focused, and you can see that in our play.”
Missing Morales, however, would be a big blow to that.
Salt Lake defender Chris Schuler scored twice against D.C. United – doubling in an 11-minute span the number of regular-season goals he's scored in his four-plus seasons with the club – and both goals came off assists by Morales.
“It starts with excellent service from Javi,” Cassar said.
Morales himself isn't quite sure how in injured his hip, except that it happened when he was fouled from behind. Cassar would clearly like to have his star midfielder on the field.
“I think right now, every game's important,” he said. “It's so tight in the West, you don't want to give up any points. This game can vault us back into first place.”