Exciting news out of the Real Salt Lake offices today as we learned that All-Star attacking midfielder Javier Morales has signed an offer to return to Salt Lake, keeping him in the Claret-and-Cobalt possibly for at least the 2013 season.
League and team policy mean that the terms of Javi's new contract haven't been made public yet - we won't get hard and fast numbers until the MLS Player's Union releases salaries later in the year - but we do know is it's an incentive-laden deal. As Morales was RSL's highest-paid player last season, the value of his new contract was the subject of much discussion this offseason, especially in light of his age (he turned 33 on Jan. 10) and the horrific ankle injury he suffered in 2011. But the reason RSL worked so hard to keep him in the fold is because they don't yet have a replacement that can bring what he brings.
Jason Kreis' diamond system revolves around a strong central midfield pairing. One reason it's been so successful is that he enjoys two of the best players in MLS at those positions. Kyle Beckerman is arguably the best defensive mid in MLS - his job (on offense) is to make simple passes with a high completion percentage, which he does. Morales' job is to make high-risk, incisive passes and spread the field.
Without an effective attacking mid, the team tends to collapse toward the middle and get bogged down because there's no space. In order to keep the width, Javi needs to touch the ball a lot - maybe every five or so passes needs to go through him - and distribute to wide players. Where Javi excels is in his vision of the field, his soccer IQ which tells him where the ball needs to go next, and his ability to put himself in places where he can touch the ball as often as the system demands. Right now RSL simply doesn't have another player with that skill set.
Morales' age and injury history have at times cast doubt on his ability to stay in form, but do the numbers bear that out? Soccer is not an easy game to analyze statistically, but for a moment let's focus on assists because those are a fairly good indicator of how a No. 10 like Javi is performing. He lead the team in assists last year, but here's the part that indicates how valuable he is to RSL: His 9 assists were 21% of the team's total. In case you're wondering how that compares to his earlier years, that number is exactly in line with his career total, highlighting his continued importance to RSL's offensive effort. And lest you think Javi was less efficient at dishing out dimes in 2012, consider this: Last year he averaged 0.38 assists per 90 minutes. That's the second-most efficient year of his career and his highest of the last four seasons - only his 2008 efficiency was better. So rest assured, Morales is still making the most of his minutes.
Of course, it's doubtful that a 33-year-old midfielder (especially one who gets fouled as much as Javi does) is going to play 90 minutes every night of the grueling MLS season. That's where the incentive-laden contract comes in. It's likely that Morales' salary will depend to some degree on his performance metrics, including minutes played. In effect, it's an insurance policy for RSL in case Javier's output drops off or he can't go as many minutes - a shrewd move by one of the smartest front offices around.
Entering the twilight of his career, Javier Morales is still one of the top attacking midfielders in MLS and I expect he'll continue to ably orchestrate RSL's attack in 2013 and hopefully beyond. Welcome back, Javi!
A former RSL beat reporter for multiple outlets, Jeremy Horton is a regular contributor to RealSaltLake.com and will cover the team for ESPN700 AM