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Mar 30, 2010

Morales moves on from last year's lows

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Prior to last weekend's First Kick festivities, the lasting image most people had of Javier Morales was the sight of the Real Salt Lake midfielder hobbling off the field during November's MLS Cup final. A challenge from Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder David Beckham resulted in a knee injury, and after gamely trying to continue, Morales was forced to exit the match after just 21 minutes. And even though RSL went on to prevail over the Galaxy in a penalty shootout, the tears Morales shed revealed just how devastated he was at missing out on the biggest match of his career.

Yet after RSL's 3-0 pasting of the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday, Morales was all smiles. His two goals, both sumptuous strikes, led his side to its first-ever opening-day victory. The twin tallies also doubled his output for all of 2009, making it a day to remember for Morales.

"I've never had a first game like this in my career, nothing like coming off of these two goals," Morales said through an interpreter.

Ever since arriving in MLS during the 2007 season, Morales has been the attacking engine that made RSL go. Yet after lighting up the league to the tune of six goals and 15 assists in 2008, he became very much a marked man. The extra physical attention saw him struggle with injuries and his temper, and even though he was at the center of Real's remarkable playoff run, it was clear to all that 2009 hadn't lived up to his expectations.

Based on Saturday's performance, one that garnered him MLS Player of the Week honors, that is something Morales is looking to change in 2010. The Argentine opened the game's scoring in the 14th minute with a thumping half-volley from 30 yards that left Quakes goalkeeper Joe Cannon with no chance.

"The first goal was one where you don't even think about it," Morales said. "You just get the ball, execute it and see what the result is."

Morales then helped set the table for his team's second goal 13 minutes later when Fabian Espindola, with the help of a fortuitous deflection, latched on to his pass and lobbed the ball over Cannon from just outside the penalty area. Morales completed the scoring nine minutes into the second half, bending his free kick around the San Jose wall with power and precision into the top corner.

"[Morales] is a player that, I think, he feels he has something to prove, and even coming off a championship season, I think honestly he'd be the first to say that it wasn't a great season for him individually," RSL head coach Jason Kreis said after Saturday's win. "It's great to be part of a championship team, but I think he feels like he could have done a lot more, so it's a real nice [development] for us to have: a confident group and a Javier Morales that is looking to prove something this year."

An in-form Morales could prove to be the best medicine against any post-championship hangover, although the midfielder insists the entire team won't lack for motivation.

"Everyone thought we became league champions by luck," Morales said. "Now this year we want to prove why we were champions."

Midfielder Kyle Beckerman added, "The Supporters Shield belongs to Columbus. We still want to go after that, and we want to be that team that's at the top of the table, that when people think of MLS that Real Salt Lake is one of the best, if not the best."

That will require replicating Saturday's road performance against teams much tougher than San Jose appears to be (albeit after one game). Kreis has always tried to foster an approach in which his team plays the same on the road as it does at home, namely with an attack-minded mentality. That requires achieving some balance between offense and defense, something the team struggled with during the 2009 season.

There were times on Saturday when some holes appeared in RSL's defense, even after San Jose defender Chris Leitch was ejected just prior to Morales' second goal. But Real defended stoutly enough, and the result was never in doubt.

In the process, RSL continued its renaissance on the road. During the 2009 regular season, Real triumphed just twice away from home before securing two road victories in the playoffs. Kreis insists he hasn't done anything special to initiate the road turnaround, stating that his team's problems were all "between the ears."

"They feel like they can go now and impose their will and not give up a bunch of chances or make mistakes early in matches," Kreis said. "For me, that's the difference."

With Morales looking close to top form, that self-belief appears set to continue.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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