SEATTLE -- When the MLS Cup final kicks off Sunday, Javier Morales will be in precisely the spot he hoped to be when the season started: quarterbacking the Real Salt Lake attack against Los Angeles in the biggest match of the year. But what the Argentine didn't expect was the arduous season he would have to endure to get to the league's championship game.
In 2008, Morales burst on the MLS scene with six goals and 15 assists, and in the process led Real to within a whisker of its first MLS Cup final appearance. And as 2009 beckoned, there was every reason to think a repeat performance was in the offing.
But Morales' exploits didn't go unnoticed by the rest of the league. Opposing teams made note of his incisive passes and on-the-ball trickery, and weren't afraid to crank up the physical play in a bid to limit his effectiveness.
"It's almost like the second time through the batting order [for Morales]," said RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey. "Guys all know what's coming this time. In particular, early in the year, everyone started kicking him."
Morales didn't handle the extra attention well, picking up four yellow cards in his first five games. The peak of his frustration was reached in a May 2 match against Colorado when he elbowed Rapids midfielder Pablo Mastroeni. The infraction wasn't seen by the referee, but the MLS Disciplinary Committee took note and slapped Morales with a one-game suspension.
"It was difficult," said Morales via a translator about the physical tactics. "[Teams] came after me a lot, and I couldn't focus."
The fact that Morales suffered through some injuries during the preseason didn't help, and the increased physical attention made it even tougher to recover. But a series of conversations with RSL head coach Jason Kreis and with some of his teammates helped Morales make some adjustments.
"It's mostly a mental approach," said Kreis of the changes Morales made to his game. "It's saying, 'OK, I'm going to get knocked around, and the referees aren't going to call stuff every time I fall down. So I've got to deal with it, get up quickly, and move on."
Kreis goes on to add that there wasn't any single turning point. Instead there was a gradual uptick in Morales' form that fully revealed itself in a season-ending 3-0 win over Colorado. It was a match that saw the midfielder at his most energetic, and when combined with a lottery-like combination of results involving the other playoff contenders, Real snuck into the postseason.
Morales then built on his Colorado performance. In the second leg of RSL's first-round series against Columbus, two goals by Crew midfielder Guillermo Barros Schelotto looked to have RSL dead and buried. But Morales responded with a vital equalizer, paving the way for a 4-2 aggregate victory. And his play against Chicago, along with the rest of his midfield colleagues, helped tip the balance of the match in Real's favor, as the visitors' possession game eventually wore the Fire down.
"[Morales] brings that sense when things are getting rattled, when things are getting out of hand, he has that experience to slow the game down and do what we need to do to keep the ball," said teammate Clint Mathis, who knows a thing or two about getting kicked and then getting back up.
That ability to control both tempo and temper will be put to the ultimate test Sunday. Former teammate and current L.A. midfielder Dema Kovalenko -- a player RSL's Kyle Beckerman called "borderline crazy" -- will mostly likely be charged with putting a stop to Morales' playmaking. That he'll attempt to do so while applying his notoriously physical style isn't even in question. Then there is the monumental task of stopping Galaxy stars David Beckham and Landon Donovan. But Morales is confident that his RSL side, one that is peaking at the right time, can prevail.
"This last part of the season we have all gotten better, and I feel very good right now," Morales said. "We're playing against two big names, but we hope 11 players can beat two stars."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|MLS Cup final
Los Angeles versus RSL
8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN360.com