It was a difficult afternoon for Pedro Morales, the 28-year-old Chilean midfielder who has arrived in Vancouver as the latest might-be star for the Whitecaps – and at a salary this season of $1.4-million (U.S.), the biggest investment the soccer club has made yet in a single player.
From the start, the Whitecaps at home against the Los Angeles Galaxy on Saturday, Morales was closely marked by Juninho, a Brazilian who is one of the best defensive midfielders in the league. Morales was mostly unable to break free and create chances. And so, he was pulled by manager Carl Robinson midway through the second half, with the Whitecaps down 1-0 and the rookie coach sending in a faster, younger player, Erik Hurtado – salary $86,150.
It worked. Hurtado almost immediately assisted on the goal to tie the game and the Whitecaps wrestled their way to a 2-2 draw, as their record fell to 2-2-3, after starting the season 2-0-2.
The day for Morales ended on a massage table in the trainer's room, a team therapist working on the player's lower back, which has been giving him problems for several years. Morales's three-year-old son stood at his father's side, sporting the same haircut, a swoop of dark hair atop his head and buzzed on the sides.
The Whitecaps and Morales are only a fifth of the way into the long season but the returns from the man brought to Vancouver to provide a significant boost faintly echo those of the line of highly paid and touted players who have come before. Eric Hassli, a tattooed Frenchman, dazzled then faded. A couple others were busts. Kenny Miller, a Scot still with the team, has been hampered by injuries and scored fewer goals than imagined.
Morales has been in Vancouver seven weeks, an attacking midfielder signed by the Whitecaps from Spain's top league to provide a play-making and scoring punch the club has never really had from the middle of the pitch in its previous three seasons.
In a couple games, Morales has been exactly what the Whitecaps believed he could be, a "joy to watch" in the words of Robinson, but has struggled in other matches, and it was again the case against the Galaxy. He could not find room to operate, squeezed in the tight quarters of Major League Soccer compared with the wider-open style of play back in Spain's La Liga. The transition jars new arrivals and, while some adjust, others do not.
"Teams learn how you play and they'll work against what your weaknesses are," said Morales in an interview last week, speaking in Spanish. "I have to find a way of working it out. It's a more physically demanding, stronger league – but I haven't felt that uncomfortable."
Morales has displayed considerable promise. In early March, after landing on a Tuesday and practising twice with the team, he came on as a second-half substitute in the season opener at home against New York. He delivered a beautiful assist and cracked home a goal in 25 minutes of play in a 4-1 thumping. Three games later, against Houston, Morales was again at his best.
"He's used to getting a lot more time on the ball," teammate Nigel Reo-Coker said. "He's a very good footballer but, to be a successful team, we need players who will do that consistently."
Morales was supposed to be, finally, the pick that hit for the Whitecaps – and, more so, an antidote to a rotten winter. The team had lost star striker Camilo Sanvezzo, the top goal scorer in MLS last year who wrenched himself out of his contract for more money in Mexico. The search for a new coach went about as badly, as several favoured candidates declined the job before the team finally turned to Robinson, an assistant with the club.
Robinson, however, had a few ideas. He had an eye on Morales, who had a record of scoring but wasn't getting playing time with Malaga in Spain's La Liga. Malaga also had debt problems. The Whitecaps saw an opening and managed to draw the player. It is a recruitment template Robinson feels the team needs. The strategy could come into play this summer, if the Whitecaps decide to let 34-year-old Miller go and seek to bolster their young lineup with another international addition.
"If we want to be a forward-thinking club," Robinson said, "we've got to look at certain scenarios in different countries and take advantage of that."
The immediate issue is to wrest themselves from an early slump. In three seasons, the team has made the playoffs once, in its sophomore campaign. It stands in a tenuous fifth place in the Western Conference.
If the team is to succeed, Morales cannot be too often contained. "He's been fantastic in certain games and in other games he's been quiet," Robinson said. "He's not going to win every game for us."
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