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The makeover of Real Salt Lake is off to a fast start

FILE: RSL's Javier Morales takes the ball out for a corner kick at Rio Tinto Stadium. Morales is one of nine MLS players to log over 200 games with just one club.
FILE: RSL's Javier Morales takes the ball out for a corner kick at Rio Tinto Stadium. Morales is one of nine MLS players to log over 200 games with just one club.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Javier Morales’ departure last month hit Real Salt Lake fans like a bicycle kick in the teeth. It was neither expected nor appreciated. Though his game is still crafty and technical, it’s a notch below what it once was, so RSL let him go.

Fan resentment soared.

“I am not retiring and I am not leaving because I want to,” he tweeted, just so everyone knew.

Clearly that wasn’t how team officials hoped it would play out. But Morales went rogue, calling his own press conference a week later to discuss the move. He told reporters he was stunned when the team didn’t pick up the option year on his contract, or at least rework his agreement. He knew about the push to get younger, but said he had hoped to be kept in the loop. Instead, he was told of the decision in his exit meeting.

Morales is one of nine MLS players to log over 200 games with just one club.

The transition from old to new is underway.

“We need to get younger. We need to get stronger,” said general manager Craig Waibel, just hours before Morales went on social media to make the announcement.

It was no secret who Waibel was referencing when he spoke of getting younger. Morales, who turns 37 in January, could still wow crowds with instinct and experience. But he was getting outpaced by younger opponents. Coach Jeff Cassar left Morales a single start shy of what the Argentine star needed to trigger his option year.

By this week it was clear the turnover isn’t finished for Real. Juan Manuel “Burrito” Martinez — the flashiest and highest-paid signee in club history — said he’s going back to play in Argentina after 1½ years in Utah. A precipitous drop in production in the second half of last season, and apparent conflict with Cassar, nudged the decision.

Details in Martinez’s case are sketchy, though his family's adjustment to Utah was cited by him and the team. He scored just one goal after July 1, partly due to injury problems. But he and Cassar also exchanged heated words on the sideline.

At 31, Martinez isn’t old, but he’s not 21 — the age of approaching star Jordan Allen. Meanwhile, how long franchise cornerstones Nick Rimando (37) and Kyle Beckerman (34) continue is in question. They, along with Morales, have long been the faces of the franchise.

While Beckerman and Rimando are under contract, reality is that the pace of the game is slowly overtaking them, too. Against younger midfields, Real sometimes had to decide whether to play Beckerman and Morales together, given the speed issues.

The 2009 MLS Cup season was an achievement to treasure, as was the Finals pairing in Kansas City in 2013. But there’s no going back to that point with the same cast. Change will give promising players such as Allen a chance to play every night.

With two star players departing within a month, there have been howls of indignation from fans, who argue RSL is destroying its legacy. They point out that Nat Borchers was traded to Portland, where he won an MLS Cup ring in 2015. General manger Garth Lagerway left for Seattle and president Bill Manning for Toronto. Now both are involved in Saturday’s MLS Cup final.

Logically, a transition to youth needed to begin. So it has. With a new training complex, the presence of the Real Monarchs, and the youth development program going strong, the groundwork is in. But two of the best players in team history are out.

Transitions are so awkward. Cassar — who himself might have been gone after a disappointing season — will now see what a younger group can do. But if in a year his team isn’t better, it will be hard to say whether recent developments were a constructive rebuilding, or simply a demolition project with no end in sight.