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The return to Rio Tinto Stadium didn't occupy much space in the mind of Javier Morales. At least not until the hours after FC Dallas drew 2-2 at home with the Portland Timbers Saturday night in Frisco, Texas.
Then the messages flooded his phone. Family and friends back in Argentina were already asking questions about what promises to be one of the more emotional matches in the career of the 37-year-old midfielder. Then more messages hit his phone, this time from friends in Salt Lake City, where for 10 seasons, his playmaking magic defined his status as a Real Salt Lake legend.
"Everyone started talking about the game," Morales told The Salt Lake Tribune this week. "Then it's where I started to think about it."
Morales arrives in Utah this week for the first time ever as a visitor. He'll make the awkward walk into Rio Tinto, but this time from the FC Dallass team bus, rather than his longtime spot in the RSL player's lot. And he won't make the long walk down the tunnel to the locker room he occupied for a decade. He'll instead make a much earlier turn into a locker room he's never used.
"This has been his home, I think it's still his home," RSL forward Yura Movsisyan said. "It doesn't matter if you've been gone or you play for another team."
A linchpin of RSL's rise from mediocrity to MLS champion and annual contender, Morales acknowledged he has no idea how he'll handle the evening, or the thunderous roars he's guaranteed to receive from the RSL faithful, who always screamed and happily lost their voices in admiration of him.
"I'm pretty sure I will have a lot of feelings in myself, because I never had the opportunity to say goodbye to the people on the field," Morales said. "And now I will be there with another jersey, but I don't know how I'll feel about it. I will try to show it because always people in Salt Lake, RSL fans, they treat me the best way. I will try to enjoy to be there one more time."
Morales' exit from RSL was sudden and acrimonious. At the conclusion of the 2016 season, Morales announced he wasn't returning to the club after discussions with the RSL front office broke down. The three-time MLS All-Star held his own press conference in downtown Salt Lake City to say RSL never offered him a new contract.
In late December, he signed with FC Dallas, adding to what has become arguably the deepest team in MLS. Morales said after he signed his last contract with RSL in 2015, he thought he'd wrap up his career in Utah.
"But this is sports," he said. "You never know. Something was in my mind, I was thinking about that, but reality showed me something different."
Onto Dallas, one of RSL's Western Conference rivals, where he is adapting to a new life. FC Dallas is the last unbeaten team in MLS at 4-0-3. So far in 2017, Morales has appeared in four matches, starting three. He scored his lone goal of the year in a 2-0 win over expansion franchise Minnesota United on April 8. The goal put Morales in the 50-goal, 50-assist club, which is filled with some of the most-storied names in league history.
"It's like everything is new again," he said. "I have to start again in a part of my career that is ending. It's tricky, but I'm enjoying … I'm happy because I had the opportunity to keep playing soccer. That is what I love."
The trip will be his first back to Utah since leaving last November. He and his family returned to Argentina during the offseason, as they always do. But then Morales headed to Dallas as his wife and two sons packed up their lives in the Salt Lake valley and moved them to Texas.
While he's on the team flight for the match, his wife and kids arrived Wednesday and will spend a whole week here to visit friends. His boys, staples at RSL training sessions for several years, are still adjusting to their new life.
"Everything is going to be emotional," Morales said.
Such returns are odd. When you become a former RSL staple, you wrestle with the past and the present. Nat Borchers reflected on his Rio Tinto return as a "strange night" that eventually left him in tears. Chris Wingert, who left RSL for a year and returned with New York City FC in 2015, said his night was special, but unusual.
"It's going to be so weird to see him in that jersey," Wingert said of Morales. "It will certainly be emotional for me. I can't even imagine for him."
Never one to hint at the finality of his career, Morales did a few times this week, especially as he talked about soaking up every moment on Saturday.
"To be honest, it could be the last one," he said, "so I have to enjoy it."
Morales already has plans to speak to the FC Dallas equipment manager, too. He won't be able to offer just the jersey off his back after the final whistle to a former teammate.
"I'm going to need more than one," Morales said.
Javier Morales file
Age » 37
Position » Attacking midfielder
Hometown » Lomas de Zamora, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
With RSL » 240 games, with 217 starts and 19,255 minutes logged.
Stats » 49 goals and 81 assists with RSL.
A new chapter » Signed with FC Dallas as a free agent this offseason, has started three matches and has one goal.
FC Dallas at Real Salt Lake
Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Where » Rio Tinto Stadium
TV » KMYU