On the field of the SoCal Sports Complex in Oceanside, California, Real Salt Lake’s Jordan Allen began a transformation that could shape the path of his career. Now entering his third year with the club, Allen had yet to find a defined role with the team. While that creates opportunities all over the field for the versatile “Swiss Army Knife,” it also stood to limit his growth potential as he worked to determine where he best fit for his own future and the future of Real Salt Lake.
Against San Diego State University on Saturday, he got his first crack as an attacking central midfielder as Head Coach Jeff Cassar looks to use Allen’s talents in the No. 10 role that has been occupied by Javier Morales for the better part of the last nine seasons for the Claret-and-Cobalt.
It’s not an entirely new role for Allen, but one that he knows will take some adjusting at the MLS level.
“I’m pretty confident playing in the middle. Growing up I played a lot in the middle. So I’m comfortable, but I play it a little different from Javi,” Allen said. “I think as much as I can soak up from him and incorporate my own style and use my abilities, I think moving forward it will be something that suits me. It gives me a little bit more freedom and I think that’s when I’m at my best.”
Allen, 20, played as a wide defender, winger and central midfielder in RSL’s 4-3-3 last year, his second season as a professional. His first season in 2014 was cut short by injury after he fought his way into playing time in the first two matches of the season. Entering preseason last year, he admitted to feeling some shock after being out of action for nearly 10 months.
Even still he was able to contribute from the start of the season for RSL. He finished the season with one goal and two assists in 23 matches, 11 of them starts. He logged 1,083 minutes despite missing over a month while away with the U.S. U-20 National Team at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand. Now, with a healthy offseason that saw him working on improving his individual game rather than maintenance to his health, he feels fresher than ever and ready to embrace his new role.
Cassar, who approached Allen about the position change upon his return to Salt Lake City, liked what he saw from the RSL-Arizona Academy product in his first game action as a No. 10, but also saw room for improvement.
“I thought it was good. I thought at times he came a little bit too deep to get the ball and really you want him distributing the ball, not starting our attack. We want him finishing our attack, and making final balls,” Cassar said. “I thought he came back a little too deep, but listen, he wants to get on the ball and create, so how can we get him on the ball and creating the right spots?”
Few in MLS have played that role like Morales over the last nine seasons, as evidenced by his 45 goals and 77 assists in 211 career MLS matches. His resurgence in the last three years has seen him notch 25 goals and 34 assists in 84 matches. And while Allen will look to gain as much as he can from the 36-year-old maestro of RSL’s midfield, he also knows that his own game differs from Morales and mimicking him completely won’t be as productive as if he plays adds his own flare to the role.
This has been a point of emphasis from Cassar as well.
“I think he can maybe make some more runs in behind a little bit more than Javier,” Cassar said. “Obviously Javier’s final ball and understanding of the game is at another level, but I think this is a great time for Jordan to really watch, learn, play and just really keep learning as much as he possibly can from Javi and the other players around him.”
Allen views that as a great opportunity to advance his game.
“I’m going to have to pay attention to the little details that you don’t just pick up on by watching the game. You pick up on them by studying the game and I think there’s a big difference,” he said. “I feel really good about it. I like having the pressure of being the focal point of the team. I think I thrive in that role. I’m looking forward to that as the season goes on this year and I get my opportunities. Hopefully I can make the most of them.”