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There were times this offseason when Real Salt Lake's front office debated whether the team could keep Javier Morales.

The Argentine midfielder had just turned 33, and while he was two years removed from a horrific ankle injury, Morales was coming off a 2012 campaign that, by his standards, was somewhat lackluster.

"We had long discussions about whether we would be able to pay a little bit of extra money to bring him back," RSL coach Jason Kreis said. "This is a player who can go to Spain, go to Mexico, or go back to Argentina and probably make more money. So the question was: were we willing to commit that salary cap to him and also some extra money from the owner's pocket? There was some discussion. I'm glad we made the right decision."

Morales may have been left off the MLS All-Star team, but midway through the season, the midfielder, who leads first-place Real in goals (five) and assists (seven) has to be talked about as a MVP candidate.

"I think you look back to pre-2011 and he's there and maybe even a little bit better," RSL defender Nat Borchers said.

For Morales, 2011 was a nightmare. In a May match against Chivas USA, Morales was dribbling just outside the 18-yard box when Marcos Mondaini slid in from behind. The replay is gruesome, and shows Morales' ankle so badly broken that his left foot is turned unnaturally off its axis.

The midfielder worked his way back onto the field by the fall, but even through the following season, Morales wasn't as good as he wanted to be.

"Always during the week there's something and you can train maybe one or two days and that is tough," he said.

It's especially tough for a player Kreis said routinely comes into training camp in the best shape of anyone on the team.

"For me, it comes down to almost 100 percent fitness level with Javier Morales," the coach said. "I've always felt like he plays his best soccer when he's the absolute fittest person on our team."

This year, Morales has taken better care of his body — "I eat better, go to the bed earlier, stretch everyday, yoga." And after playing a frustrating season last year, Morales said he finally feels 100 percent.

"I'm feeling better, like every game, every week," he said. "When you're healthy, life is different."

Twitter: @aaronfalk —

Real Salt Lake at New York

P At Red Bull Arena (Harrison, N.J.)

Kickoff • Saturday, 5 p.m.

TV • Ch. 4

Records • Salt Lake 11-6-4, 37 points; New York 9-7-5, 32 points

Last meeting • RSL 2, Red Bulls 0 (March 18, 2012)

About RSL • First place in the league, despite a disappointing 2-1 loss to Sporting Kansas City last weekend. … Forward Alvaro Saborio returns to the team after being away with the Costa Rican national team. … Goalkeeper Nick Rimando, midfielder Kyle Beckerman and defender Tony Beltran remain with the U.S. national team, which will play Panama in the Gold Cup final. … Midfielder Javier Morales leads the team in goals (five) and assists (seven). … Defender Chris Wingert will serve the first of a two-game suspension for a violent collision with Kansas City's Kei Kamara last week.

About New York • The East's third-place team. … Forward Fabian Espindola and Jamison Olave helped RSL win the 2009 MLS Cup, but were traded away this offseason. … Former Arsenal star Thierry Henry leads the team with seven goals. … Midfielder Jonny Steele played last season for RSL.

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