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Oft-overlooked Morales helps lead Real Salt Lake over Toronto FC

Javier Morales turns in a characteristically steady performance to lift Real Salt Lake over Toronto FC on Sunday. 

SANDY, Utah — International breaks in Major League Soccer offer overlooked players a chance in the spotlight, as the league still doesn’t observe every FIFA date. One of those players, Javier Morales, turned in a characteristically steady performance to lift Real Salt Lake over Toronto FC, 2-1, on Sunday.

Morales assisted both of RSL’s goals, hooking a first-half cross to Luke Mulholland with his right foot before doing the same with his left for Jordan Allen’s first professional goal and the team’s 89th-minute winner.

Morales had space to look up from the ball momentarily and pick out Mulholland on the first goal, running unmarked at the back post. Accustomed to seeing the 35-year-old Argentine playmaker hit pinpoint passes of that nature, Allen said he knew where to position himself in the dying moments of the game.

“You have to expect the ball from him,” Allen said after the game. “He has the type of quality where he’ll put it just like he did to me, right to my head.”

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Morales tells the story on that cross a little differently, though.

“On the second one, I was too tight [to a defender] and was just trying to cross the ball,” he said. “I guessed in that moment that somebody was there, and I was lucky.”

That luck comes as a product of successful repetition. Morales has scored or assisted on 30% of Salt Lake’s 351 goals since joining the team in 2007, despite missing four months in 2011 after a fracture-dislocation in his left ankle.

Morales led MLS in 2013 with 110 key passes (passes leading directly to a shot on goal), along with his fourth-best 10 assists. He followed that with 94 key passes in 2014, second to Landon Donovan, and 12 assists.

Morales’s big misfortune on the international level is that he hails from a country whose midfield includes Javier Mascherano, Ángel di María and Maxi Rodríguez. He has never been capped for Argentina.

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Complementing Morales’s performance on Sunday was 42-time United States international Kyle Beckerman, who also stayed home in the current window. Retaining two of RSL’s most important leaders, who are in their ninth season together at RSL along with goalkeeper Nick Rimando, helped to boost the more inexperienced players.

“It’s massive anytime those two are on the field,” head coach Jeff Cassar said. “I thought Kyle really held the fort down in the defensive mid.”

Beckerman won five of his six attempted tackles and recovered seven loose balls from his usual position ahead of the Salt Lake back four. Marking Toronto FC trequartista Sebastian Giovinco became easier without Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore there as support, but the Italian remained Toronto’s most dangerous player on the ball.

Jeff Attinella, filling in for Rimando for the 16th time in three seasons, came through with important saves in the second half. He snuffed out a one-on-one after a ball slipped through center backs Chris Schuler and Jámison Olave in the 64th minute, followed by parrying a powerful free kick in the 78th.

“Besides the one extremely dangerous play that Giovinco got through … we dealt with him pretty well tonight,” Cassar said.

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A general defensive breakdown led to Toronto’s equalizing goal in the 88th minute, as substitute Jackson cut through the center of Salt Lake’s defense after a one-two with Bright Dike. Straight away on the other end, though, Allen, Devon Sandoval and Morales combined to rectify the error.

Besides 19-year-old Allen making his fifth appearance after an injury-shortened rookie season in 2014, Sandoval played 90 minutes in place of striker Álvaro Saborío, away with Costa Rica. (Sandoval also proposed to his girlfriend in the center circle before the game, receiving an ovation from his teammates watching in the stands.)

Every player filling in for an absent teammate — Attinella, Mulholland and Sandoval — played a role in the victory, highlighting the team’s necessary depth for the unique challenges the MLS schedule poses.

“It’s just part of our league now, where we don’t take a break, so you’re going to miss some players,” Beckerman said. “You have to have depth; you can’t be just 11 players — you’ve got to be around 15, 16 guys that can really contribute. Tonight, we needed it.”