No Morales, big problem for RSL

By Tim Keeble, Soccer Editor

MLS Features Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Two teams in the history of Major League Soccer have repeated as MLS Cup champions, and up until the 69th minute of Saturday's Western Conference semifinal first leg against FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake looked like a real threat to make it three.

The defending MLS Cup champs entered the postseason riding a 14-game unbeaten streak and were widely considered to be one of the favorites to lift the Philip F. Anschutz trophy in Toronto on Nov. 21.

That was until the 69th minute when the right foot of RSL midfielder Javier Morales struck Dax McCarty in the chest, earning Morales a second yellow card from referee Kevin Stott and casting plenty of doubt about Salt Lake's ability to overcome Dallas in the return leg on Saturday.

Dallas substitute Eric Avila went on to score the winning goal in the 88th minute of a 2-1 Hoops victory, and while there is no doubt that Salt Lake has the ability to overcome a one-goal deficit at home, the loss of Morales, who will be suspended for the game, is a huge blow.

Javier Morales
The loss of Javier Morales is a huge blow for Real Salt Lake.
"He's a big factor for them," FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman said of Morales. "He's the one that pulls the strings. It's nothing different than having a loss of David Ferreira for us. It was a huge loss for them but they are a good team, a team that doesn't lose very often at home."

In fact, RSL put together the best home record in MLS with an 11-0-4 mark at Rio Tinto Stadium, outscoring the opposition by a combined score of 31-7.

But for a team like Dallas, which lost just three times away from home this season, going to Rio Tinto one goal up changes the equation a bit.

Dallas led the league with 14 draws in 30 games this season, and with just a draw needed to reach the conference finals, don't expect Dallas to play a very open style in an effort to limit the offensive chances of RSL.

Which is exactly the kind situation where having a player like Morales is so important.

Throughout the season, Morales has been vital in providing service to forwards Alvaro Saborio, Fabian Espindola and Robbie Findley, who combined to score 23 of Salt Lake's 45 goals.

But without the presence of Morales, who led the team with nine assists, there is a good chance that things will not flow so freely through the midfield to RSL's talented strikers, putting more pressure on midfielders like Kyle Beckerman, Ned Grabavoy and Andy Williams to be creative.

The frustrating part for RSL coach Jason Kreis has to be the fact that his team hadn't received a red card all season, and that Morales was booked in the 49th minute for an innocent exchange with Dallas player Daniel Hernandez.

Morales picked up his second yellow card 20 minutes later, but he appeared to be simply making a play on a bouncing ball that McCarty ran through, certainly not a challenge that had any malicious intent.

Salt Lake is a respectable 2-2-1 in league matches that Morales did not start this season, but the team only scored five goals combined, with both wins coming against non-playoff teams Chicago and Toronto.

However, Kreis has done his best to downplay the absence of his midfield playmaker, as expected.

"Certainly it will hurt," Kreis said. "Morales is a very, very important player for us, but we've had him out for a stretch early this season and got results without him as well, so we believe in what we've built here in this group and next week shouldn't be any different."

Kreis has every reason to believe in what he has built, considering that when he took over as coach in May 2007 he completely overhauled the roster and would win just six games in his inaugural season.

However, the former FC Dallas standout led RSL to an improbable appearance in the conference finals the next season before winning the MLS Cup last campaign.

Kreis has built RSL into one of the most complete teams in MLS. But taking Morales out of the midfield is like removing the engine from a sports car - no matter how well it's built, it's not going anywhere without anything under the hood.

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