The canary in the coalmine might have come in September. Real Salt Lake were in the midst of a five-games-in-16-days stretch, trying to juggle a run at the final Western Conference playoff spot with their CONCACAF Champions League ambitions. The arrival of Juan Manuel "Burrito" Martinez had sparked a rebirth of sorts starting in mid-August, and the Claret-and-Cobalt were looking a little bit scary.
Even with Burrito on board, though, the key man was playmaker Javier Morales. He'd registered three goals and two assists as RSL took 9 of 12 points from West foes, then came off the bench to save the team's CCL hopes in a 25-minute cameo on September 24 against Santa Tecla. JaviMo, at age 35, was indistinguishable from the genius who arrived on these shores nearly a decade ago.
But in those 25 minutes, during which he contributed a pair of assists, he also picked up a hip flexor injury. He missed RSL's league game that weekend -- a must-win at San Jose that became a punchless 1-0 loss -- and when he returned the following week, he was not the same player.
A three-wins-in-four-games run turned into a four-losses-in-five-games stumble to close the franchise's first playoff-less season since 2007. Morales struggled badly with his movement, part of which was no doubt due to the lingering effects of the injury... but I hate to say that Javi finally started to look a little bit old out there.
That has to terrify the folks in Sandy:
Morales is 36 now, and is still a huge part of everything RSL are planning for the season to come. That includes more CCL games, and the regular season, and this is, of course, one of the MLS teams that takes the US Open Cup ultra-seriously. There will be precious few rest days.
And the simple fact is that there's no ready-made replacement should Father Time truly catch up with Morales. Luis Gil's gone, Bofo Saucedo is on loan, and while Jordan Allen can do some fun stuff in attack he's not really a No. 10. A full season of Martinez and -- hopefully -- a healthy Joao Plata should ease the burden a bit, but for the past decade the reality is that when Morales isn't making chances, RSL are a static and predictable team.
They can't afford for him to act his age in 2016. For one more year, at least, the greatest player in franchise history needs to win the fight against Father Time.
This is the seventh in a daily series counting down to to the MLS regular season first kick on March 6. I'm using Paul Carr's tweets (with his blessing) to examine some of the bigger storylines to follow in the upcoming season.
- 18 days out Examining David Villa's role for NYCFC
- 17 days out Can Larin replicate his rookie year heroics?
- 16 days out A new spot and new concerns for Giovinco
- 15 days out New start begins at the back for Chicago
- 14 days out Sporting can create, but who'll finish?
- 13 days out Young-at-the-back Union flipping the script