Since starting up four years ago, Real Salt Lake has stumbled a few times on and off the field, yet on two fronts it is establishing a long-term commitment to the community and its fans.
Whether or not RSL reaches the playoffs for the first time, this has been a landmark season. First and foremost is the unveiling of its 20,000-capacity stadium Oct. 9 in suburban Sandy, and whatever homefield advantage it might lose by leaving Rice-Eccles Stadium will be far surpassed by the grass field, sexy design, fan-friendly amenities, and of course, revenue streams that come with owning your own place.
The team also addressed its long-term competitive future by re-signing midfielder Javier Morales, 28, to a four-year extension of his current deal, with an option to purchase his rights before the end of the calendar year. Whether he stays or decides to move on, the investment in Morales is a sound one. With four goals and 10 assists in 24 games, Morales has contributed this season to more goals than any other RSL player.
Long balls played by Morales set up Robbie Findley and Fabian Espindola to score MLS Goal of the Week winners this season. Both balls covered more than 40 yards yet fell perfectly for his teammates to run onto, which isn't an easy task on the harsh Rice-Eccles artificial surface.
A shoulder injury limited to him to seven games after he joined RSL in August, 2007 following a decade of play in his native Argentina as well as Spain. He set a league record by earning an assist 40 seconds into his first league match against Kansas City.
Morales had been playing under a contract worth $240,000 per year. Terms of his new deal haven't been released.
"I am very pleased to stay here with Real Salt Lake for the next four years," said Morales in a team statement announcing the deal. "The club offered me the extension and I accepted it because I feel comfortable here, comfortable with not just the team and the coaching staff, but with living in Salt Lake City as well."
RSL plays at San Jose Saturday in a match critical to both team's playoff hopes. RSL (8-10-7, 31 points) is in fourth place, tied with third-place Colorado on points but trailing them via the tiebreaking process. San Jose (7-9-8, 29 points) is last in the Western Conference yet could leapfrog RSL and into a playoff slot by winning. By virtue of a postponed match, the Quakes also have a game in hand.
The match Saturday will be the team's third and final league encounter in 2008. In previous meetings this year RSL has won, 3-1, and the teams tied, 0-0. RSL also thrashed San Jose, 4-0, in the U.S. Open Cup. All three games were played at Rice-Eccles and before Quakes coach Frank Yallop strengthened his squad by adding attackersDarren Huckerby, Scott Sealy and Arturo Alvarez, and midfielder Francisco Lima. Those acquisitions have helped the Quakes reel off a nine-game unbeaten streak.