LEHI — Real Salt Lake's first choice midfield back in March and April during its Champions League run was Kyle Beckerman, Will Johnson, Javier Morales and Ned Grabavoy/Andy Williams.
RSL has endured without Morales for most of the season, but with his return in late September there was a genuine buzz about the team getting the midfield gang back together heading into the playoffs.
Incredibly though, when RSL opens the playoffs next week the quartet of midfielders won't have played a match together since the Champions League against Monterrey.
On the night Morales made his long-awaited return on Sept. 28 at Rio Tinto Stadium against Chicago, Beckerman was red-carded 50 minutes earlier and was effectively suspended for the rest of the regular season.
Grabavoy didn't play at Colorado last weekend after re-aggravating a hamstring injury the week before, and he's questionable for this Saturday's match against Portland.
Johnson was called-up by the Canadian National Team a week after the Chicago match, and turned his ankle during his match with the Canucks. He missed the Vancouver and Colorado matches, and is still a question mark for this weekend.
It's ironic that Morales, who missed five months with a broken ankle, has been the most consistent part of RSL's midfield over the past month.
Even though the situation is less than ideal heading into the playoffs, all parties involved feel content.
"Going into that Chicago game we're thinking we're going to get a few games to play together. For different reasons it didn't happen and we had to face a little adversity, but I don't think it's a massive deal," said Johnson.
"Javy, Kyle, myself, Ned, Andy, all these guys in the midfield this is our fourth playoff run that I've been a part of, we know what it takes. We know what each other's strengths and weaknesses are and I don't think we need five games to gel and get going again. I think we're all just excited to get back on the field together and hopefully that happens the first game of the playoffs."
Coach Jason Kreis believes the experience of all his midfielders can still be an advantage despite the lack of continuity. In particular, he believes Beckerman and Morales should have no problem meshing in their first game back in the playoffs.
"I think training helps. Javy's been training for quite a while now, and to put those guys together in the training sessions is certainly helpful, but ultimately a lot of it comes down to that they've played so much together that I don't think it will be a big problem," said Kreis.
What's particularly encouraging for RSL is Morales' progress the past month. Mid-October was his projected return following May surgery, but he made his return several weeks ahead of schedule, and he's already turned in two 90-minute performances.
"Fitness-wise and ankle-wise and being able to play minutes, he's ahead of all the expectations the doctors placed on him, and trainers. To have him play two 90-minute matches already heading into this game I think he's ahead of all of our expectations, and the soccer's going to come," said Kreis.
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