SANDY — When Javier Morales was shown his second yellow card last week in Dallas, it was probably the "uh-oh" moment of the MLS playoffs.
Thoughts immediately shifted to whether Real Salt Lake could survive the final 20 minutes a man down on the road — which it couldn't and wound up losing 2-1. Now heading into Game 2, it must cope again without its best attacking player.
Imagine Los Angeles playing without Landon Donovan or Dallas without David Ferreira. They would be crippling absences.
Unless RSL can win without a similar void, its season will end this Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Nobody in Real's locker room seems too concerned about the difficult situation.
"Everybody expects a different answer than I'm going to give," said RSL coach Jason Kreis. "I don't think it affects the way we play. Of course, Javier is a fantastic player and can be a difference-maker for us a lot of the time, but we feel like we have four other guys who can step in and do a great job."
Throughout the season, Andy Williams and Ned Grabavoy took turns as Real's fourth starting midfielder depending upon injuries, match-ups and form. Both figure to get the nod without Morales, and they've proved throughout the season they're capable of getting the job done.
Morales started 25 of 30 regular-season matches this year. In the five games he didn't start, RSL's record was 1-2-2. Three of those absences came in the first six weeks of the season when Morales missed some time with a groin injury. He started 18 straight matches once he returned, with RSL posting an impressive 10-1-7 record.
He then missed back-to-back games in mid-September because of a suspension and to rest following a critical Champions League match. He returned to start the final four games of the regular season.
Morales finished as RSL's second-leading scorer with seven goals and led the team with nine assists.
Even though Morales' coaches and teammates are confident they can win without him, it won't be easy.
"When Javy's in there, we look for him a lot. We look to play through him a little bit, and that's just because he's one of the best players in the league," said midfielder Will Johnson. "We've still got some very capable players in there, and I think Javy's load will get evenly distributed on the other guys who will play."
Grabavoy believes the other midfielders can get the job done, but with different personnel come different abilities.
"He can create things kind of more individually, especially off the dribble. He kind of has that individual flare that, let's be honest, few guys in this league have if any," said Grabavoy. "The four guys in there all need to work hard together, and we need to move the ball quickly and things will open up from there."
No one will be cheering them on more than Morales himself.
"This is a long week for me. But I believe in my team. I believe in my teammates," said Morales.
If RSL doesn't overcome its one-goal Game 1 deficit, Morales' lasting memory of the 2010 season will be walking off the field in Dallas following a red card. It would be a cruel reality for Morales, who was injured in the opening 15 minutes of last year's MLS Cup and was forced to watch the biggest match of the season from the bench.
"You work so hard all year to play in the playoffs, and now I miss one of the most important games this year," said Morales.
He and Kyle Beckerman have worked out a deal, though, to extend the season.
"He told me he'd give me one more (game), and I have to give him one more after," said Morales.
That would mean a return trip to MLS Cup, which a heathy Morales would love to be a part of.
FC Dallas at Real Salt Lake
Saturday, 8 p.m.
Rio Tinto Stadium
TV: FSC Radio: 700 AM, 1600 AM
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