LEHI — The Javier Morales comeback watch is officially underway.
The Real Salt Lake all-star midfielder, who's been out of commission since breaking his ankle on May 7, trained with his teammates for the first time in nearly four months on Tuesday. It was as a non-contact, neutral player with no defensive responsibilities, but he was in the mix nonetheless knocking the ball around in some small-sided training exercises.
It was all pain-free, which Morales said was exciting because he was expecting some pain.
"(I'm) starting to feel like a player again, so I'm very happy," said Morales.
Equally impressive is how fit he already is. Tuesday is often fitness day at Real Salt Lake training, and Morales was right there doing diagonal 30- to 40-second sprints the length of the field with his teammates. Morales, who is usually among the two or three fittest players on the team, was occasionally even setting the pace for his four-player sprint group without any visible effects from the devastating injury.
Morales may still be a month away from returning to the field, but the extensive rehab work he's been doing with the trainers the past two weeks is paying big dividends.
"Just to have him out here the past couple of weeks doing the technical stuff and have his smile out here and laughing and enjoying being back on the soccer field, I think it helps the entire group, myself included," said RSL coach Jason Kreis.
That's exciting news for a team that feared the worst when Morales broke his ankle at Rio Tinto Stadium against Chivas USA.
When Morales went under the knife just a few days after the injury, Dr. Andrew Cooper said the middle of October seemed like a reasonable estimate when Morales could return. He acknowledge that in two previous surgeries he performed on Morales, the midfielder recovered quicker than expected and suggested it could happen again.
Morales said he doesn't want to rush back too early from such a significant injury, but said "I'm feeling good now. I would like to play earlier (than mid-October)."
Oct. 1 is a date that's been thrown around casually regarding Morales' comeback. That's not a coincidence either as RSL plays at the league-leading L.A. Galaxy on that date.
If Morales doesn't make it back by Oct. 1, Real Salt Lake has three more regular season games remaining before the playoffs begin the final week of October.
"If you look at what he's doing right now, you'd have to say at some point we'll see him," said Kreis.
With Morales and defender Chris Wingert (broken wrist) both expected back in October and Ned Grabavoy (groin) likely returning this weekend, RSL might be positioning itself for another late-season run like in 2009.
"It's been a little bit chaotic for our team throughout the summer, but I think it's a situation where we can make a pretty good push here and put ourselves in a pretty good position playoff wise," said Grabavoy. "If we're hitting on all cylinders at the right time I think we can be a bit of a scary team, but there's work that needs to be done and a lot of things that need to happen to get to that point as well, it's not just going to happen."