Real Salt Lake fans have been dreading rebuilding for at least a year now. With the season out and the team goals not met, some changes are likely to happen.
But what will they be?
Many of the changes will likely hinge on the decision regarding Javier Morales.
His DP-level contract is up at season’s end, and he will be 33 before the next season starts. Some have suggested that he hasn’t returned to his pre-injury level, though his numbers this year are consistent with his 2009 and 2010 seasons.
The eyeball test tells a different story. Morales is still close to the top of his game, but he’s getting older. His fouls were up this season, reflecting a player who was often a step behind. How much longer he wants to play and how willing he is to play for less than his expiring contract are unknowns to the fan base.
He is a critical part of the Real Salt Lake locker room. He and Fabian Espindola first learned English in order to build relationships with their teammates. This tradition has been followed by other key players from Latin America. This has built a bond in the Salt Lake locker room that doesn’t exist in most MLS clubs. There isn’t the division by native language that so often exists elsewhere. This is a benefit General Manager Garth Lagerwey attributes to Morales.
Morales’ influence is reflected in personnel decisions as well. He and Kyle Beckerman have always been more like co-captains. The Argentine attacker even wore the armband this season a few times when the center official was a native Spanish speaker.
To put it simply, the Morales decision will impact virtually everything the club does.
Salt Lake can be a competitor for MLS Cup and the Supporters’ Shield next season, but to do so, they will either need Morales or a suitable replacement. If neither is an option, then a larger makeover of the team is the only option.
The last two seasons have proven to Salt Lake fans that there isn’t an easy replacement for Morales. Luis Gil is coming along, but there is always a drop-off when Morales leaves the pitch. In addition, Gil’s skill set of speed and strong crossing seem to be a better fit for a winger than a true number 10.
The pickup of David Viana this fall appeared like an attempt to find a replacement for Morales. The young Frenchman has a pedigree similar to Morales’ when the latter joined Salt Lake. He has impressive control of the ball but washed out of lower divisions in Spain. However, Viana clearly didn’t understand Salt Lake’s tactics during his short 27 minutes of action this fall.
While Viana seems like a very strong young player, his poor decision-making and scant experience with the team might give Lagerwey and Jason Kreis pause before handing him the keys to Salt Lake’s potent attack.
So what are the other options? A one-year deal with Morales, a multi-year deal for less money, or a clean break with the top of the diamond played by a committee a Gil, Viana, Sebastien Velasquez, Ned Grabavoy, and anyone else the side can bring in.
There is one other option.
The side could go to a 4-5-1 with Fabian Espindola and Luis Gil playing as wingers. A central core of Beckerman, Grabavoy, and Will Johnson would be a potent midfield powerhouse. Best of all, Alvaro Saborio would get into his best situation much more often, knocking in crosses in front of goal.
Without Morales, Salt Lake’s personnel matches a 4-5-1 much better than the diamond. But whether they decide to make that move depends upon how committed Kreis and Lagerwey are to that style.