The game clock ticked into the 38th minute of Real Salt Lake’s May 11, 2011 match against Chivas USA. RSL pressed up the left wing, and Javier Morales received the ball along the sideline. With a quick cut, Morales beat his mark, Marcos Mondaini, and dribbled to the top of the 18-yard box. Moments later, Mondaini was shown a straight red for a reckless tackle from behind, and Morales lay in a heap, holding his broken left ankle.
For a technically gifted player like Morales, a severe leg injury can spell not only the end of a promising season but also the early termination of a bright career. After joining RSL in 2007 at the age of 27 (a season in which he notched 1 goal and 2 assists in 7 appearances), Morales quickly became the creative force in RSL’s midfield, logging another 14 goals and 29 assists in the three seasons before his catastrophic injury. With a broken leg, nothing about Morales’ future was certain.
Morales sat out the next four months to heal, returning on September 28, 2011 in a 3-0 home loss to the Chicago Fire. He managed just one assist in the team’s final five games that season.
Unsurprisingly, concerns about Morales’ ability to recover from a horrific injury (particularly at the “ripe old age” of 31) soon surfaced. He had returned, but had he really returned? More importantly, could he ever really return?
Morales’ current form has answered that question with a resounding YES. After a lackluster 2012 by Morales’ standards (“only” 3 goals and 9 assists), Morales registered 8 goals and 10 assists in 2013, then 9 goals and 12 assists in 2014. This year, Morales leads RSL in both goals (5) and assists (7). Now 35 and with his ankle injury fading in the rear-view mirror, Javier Morales is playing the best soccer of his life.
This season, Morales has 50 key passes to accompany his 7 assists, and factoring in his 5 goals on 27 shots, Morales has created 84 scoring chances in 2015. Averaged over his 1,225 minutes played this season, Morales is generating 6.17 scoring chances per 90 minutes, or a chance every 14.6 minutes. RSL’s maestro has logged double-digit key-passes-plus-assists twice this season (10 vs. Sporting Kansas City on June 21, 10 vs. Orlando City on July 4).
Soccer is generally unkind to players after age 30 as physical ability begins to decline. But for Morales, with age has come experience. With that experience Morales has improved his anticipation while maintaining his outstanding ball-handling skills. And nowhere was Morales’ skill more apparent than in his brilliant slalom of the Sporting Kansas City defense to score the opener in Friday night’s match. It’s amazing that his broken ankle–now four years later–has not only healed completely but also seems to have had no lasting effects.
It’s hard to tell how much longer Morales will be able to maintain his current level of play; his energy and desire to win certainly seem endless, but time makes no exceptions. It will be a sad day for both RSL and MLS when Javier Morales retires. We should be grateful to enjoy his creativity while we can.
(image courtesy of Ravell Call/AP)