Hard to believe it was just a couple of weeks ago that Real Salt Lake was the envy of the soccer community, sitting on the verge of a historic achievement and enjoying the adoration from every corner of its world.
Suddenly, everything is upside down.
The team is out of the Champions League, it hasn't been playing well coach Jason Kreis said players aren't trusting each other enough and now it must find a way to negotiate perhaps the rest of its Major League Soccer season without its best player, injured midfielder Javier Morales.
"It's tough to lose a guy like that," defender Nat Borchers said. "The team is the star, but he's one of our most talented players. Creates a lot for us, gives us a lot of chances. So we're going to have to have guys step up. … We've got guys in there that can do it, but it's going to be a process, I think."
Morales is scheduled to have surgery Monday at Salt Lake Regional Medical Center to repair the two broken bones, a dislocated ankle and torn ligaments he suffered in his left leg when he was recklessly tackled from behind by Chivas USA's Marcos Mondaini in the first half of a 1-0 victory for RSL on Saturday.
Team officials said the 31-year-old playmaker will be out at least four months, but his teammates in the locker room were assuming he won't return until next season.
Either way, RSL might have just seen its hopes of winning the MLS Cup and Supporters Shield regular-season title dashed, considering how important Morales has been to its success.
Although the team is widely viewed as among the deepest in the league midfielders Andy Williams, Collen Warner and Ned Grabavoy figure to take on increased roles now playing four months without its best player could cost it just enough points to keep it off the top of the table. RSL was eliminated from the playoffs by FC Dallas at home last season in a game that Morales missed because of a red-card suspension.
"He's one of the best players in the league," midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. "So it's not only bad for us, it's bad for the league that he's not going to be playing, and our heart goes out to him."
The MLS Disciplinary Committee is expected to meet in the next couple of days to review the gruesome tackle on Morales, and potentially punish Mondaini beyond the automatic one-game suspension and $250 fine that comes with the red card he received.
Several RSL players said the league should come down hard on Mondaini, the way it did with the additional nine-game suspension and $5,000 fine it imposed on Colorado's Brian Mullan after Mullan broke the leg of Seattle's Steve Zakuani with a reckless tackle last month.
"I'm sure they will," Beckerman said.
Meanwhile, RSL will get to work on straightening itself out.
The team is an impressive 5-1-0 with several games in hand against its other championship rivals, but hasn't really played well since a 4-1 home victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy on March 26, as far as Kreis is concerned.
The team is 3-3-1 in all competitions since then, and has scored only once in its past three games.
"It's just confidence," Kreis said. "The willingness of the players to take some risks and play a little quicker and trust that their teammate is going to take a good touch if they play it to them under a little bit of pressure.
"Right now, it's like we're seeing options and we're hesitating," he added. "We're saying, 'Oh, I don't want to play it there because he might lose it. And if we lose it, then we're going to have to run all the way back.' So right now, for me it comes down to all about confidence."
Midfielder thanks his faithful fans
Morales returned home after a trip to the hospital emergency room Saturday and posted a message on his Twitter account thanking fans for their support.
"Thanks everyone for kind words," he wrote. "You make me stronger, I felt bad but you make me feel much better. I'll try to be back ASAP. THANKS!!!!"