It’s been a decidedly mixed summer for Vancouver Whitecaps captain Pedro Morales.
There’s been positives. His contract extension that was announced in August, the ‘Caps winning their first ever Canadian Championship, Vancouver maintaining at least a top two placing in the Western Conference, often topping the table along the way, and he’s grabbed three goals over the past two months.
That’s all been great, but unfortunately for Morales, he’s had to watch a lot of it from the sidelines. Sometimes the bench, sometimes from the stands.
The Chilean has been suffering the effects of some nagging injuries for what feels like the whole season. Some of it has been the continuation of his back injury that plagued him during his first season in MLS, but there’s also been niggling hamstring injuries that just won’t seem to go away.
Morales hasn’t started back to back games since the home games against Philadelphia and Seattle on May 9th and 16th. There’s been 12 MLS matches since then and he’s only been able to start four of them. In small part through rest, but mostly through injury.
It’s been frustrating for both the player and Carl Robinson, but with the season now getting into the business end, it’s looking like the ‘Caps are close to getting their captain back to full fitness when they are likely to need his inspiration the most.
“I feel good after the last two weeks with my injury,” Morales told AFTN at training on Thursday. “I feel good in my legs. I’ve been training hard the last two days with [Jon] Poli and I’m feeling nothing in my hamstring now.”
Just what to do with Morales heading into a crucial game with San Jose is certainly a dilemma for Robinson.
The ‘Caps coach had to use both Morales and Octavio Rivero off the bench in last Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to New York City after both failed late fitness tests. He was told he could use both for 15 to 20 minutes. He got 23 minutes out of Morales and the Chilean looked excellent when he came on, hitting home the equalising penalty and looking back to his old ball spraying self at times.
It’s the difference maker the Whitecaps need at this crunch time of the season and one they’ve been missing from their Designated Players in their three losses over the last few weeks.
“Since June, we haven’t had our three DPs [on the field at the same time],” Robinson told reporters this week. “It makes a big difference. The three DPs of NYC won them the game really. We haven’t had that, but it shows the depth of our squad that we’re still in with a shout towards the end of the season with a number of injuries.”
That depth may be great but it’s been tested and stretched in the losses to Houston, Seattle and New York. They Whitecaps need Morales back but they don’t want to rush him and cause further aggravation to his injury.
They got away with it last week but it was close. Morales stretched for a ball late on and the bandage covering his hamstring came flying off. It looked like he may have overstretched and tweaked it again, and he hardly ran after that.
Robinson confirmed to us that that was the case, but it was a minor tweak that was fine after a couple of days rest and some light training. It was alarming never-the-less. The one thing the Whitecaps don’t want to do is to push him back early again and risk losing him for the playoffs.
“We’ve just got to get him fit and healthy in the run-in,” Robinson told us last week ahead of the NYC game. “We just won’t take any risks. I won’t take any risks on any of my players, which is why we’ve made a number of changes [recently]. I’ll continue to do that because I won’t put any players health at risk.”
The original plan was to ease him back gently.
“That’s what we’ll probably do,” Robinson added. “I done that after his original injury and then it reoccurred. We’ve just got be very careful. We’ve got enough good players in those areas that we don’t need to rush anyone.”
That view hasn’t changed but needs may cause some reconsideration.
Mauro Rosales has come into the number ten role and hasn’t been able to stamp his authority on games the way we know he can. Nicolas Mezquida now has an injury that will see him miss another game this weekend.
And that takes us back to Robinson’s dilemma for the Quakes game.
Morales will play, but whether he will start and play the first hour, or come on as a sub for the last half hour, will be down to a gameday decision and the health of Rivero may also dictate what option Robinson goes with.
“I’d rather have 90 minutes from Pedro,” Robinson admitted. “That would be nice. We’ll try and get to it as close as we can.”
Morales is eager to play his part, but is also unsure what would be the best way to use him right now. Whatever Robinson decides, he’s ready to go.
“The decision is Robbo’s now,” Morales told us. “I don’t know if he’ll play me for the start of the game [against San Jose] or in the second half. I don’t know what is the best.
“The thing is to help the team, either from the first minute or in the second half. But I feel good and I’ve been working hard these two weeks since getting back to training and I’m ready now for these last games.”
The Whitecaps know they are in for a battle during the last month of the regular MLS season and Morales will be a crucial part of it.
A win over San Jose on Saturday and they clinch their second straight postseason berth with three games to spare. Then it all comes down to positioning, with a home and away series with Dallas set to determine whether they get a first round bye or not.
A defeat in San Jose and the Quakes are suddenly just two points behind them and even the ‘Caps place in the playoffs is thrown into doubt, never mind all the talk of the Supporters’ Shield and a home playoff game from just a couple of weeks ago.
Pressure, but the Whitecaps are ready for it, and they’ve had some previous experience last season when they had to pretty much win every game of the final month to make the playoffs.
Different scenarios, but Morales feels that experience will serve the ‘Caps well.
“It’s different from last year because the team have a very big chance to win the Cup this year,” Morales told us. “We’re now in the second position but the team is just concentrating on the last four games.
“It’s like a final on Saturday. Every one of these four games is like a final. The team is prepared for these last four games. We just need to play with confidence and start to win again.”
And the key to winning is for Vancouver to actually take their chances. Not something they’ve found easy to do of late.
The amount of missed chances in the final stages of the loss to New York was staggering.
The general feeling in the ‘Caps camp this week was that it’s just a matter of time before those chances turn to goals again and Morales is at least pleased with the creative aspect of the side but knows it needs to be better.
“If you don’t create the chances then it’s a danger for the team,” Morales said. “If you create the chances in the first half, in the second half, against a good team, you need to score. Sometimes you’re not lucky. Sometimes you’re not concentrating enough in the final pass.”
There were so many breaks with at least a man advantage last weekend, with a failure to punish their visitors every time. It eventually cost the ‘Caps dear, as we all know, with NYC’s controversial late penalty winner. Three vital points lost and the chance to grab some breathing space at the top of standings gone. Again.
Morales knows it’s not acceptable to squander so many of those opportunities and it’s been the prime focus at training in the aftermath of the defeat.
“This week we’ve worked on the situation,” Morales added. “The counter attack. Four against two, four against three. We lost too many chances last week against New York. If we score, then maybe we win and we’re in first position. Sometimes this stuff happens but we need to create and score more goals.”
Let’s hope that begins again on Saturday night in San Jose.