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Has the Real Pedro Morales Stood Up?

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The Vancouver Whitecaps have benefited from a rejuvenated Pedro Morales who appears to finally be playing up to the expectations of fans and his salary. Is this a mirage or will the current Morales stick around? The Caps season could depend on it.

Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

It is no secret that I have been one of the biggest critics of Pedro Morales’ inclusion in the Vancouver Whitecaps team. While his long-bomb passes are sublime and at times it seems that he has the ball on a string as he weaves through defenders, there have been plenty of things to be critical of with his overall contribution to the Whitecaps.

One of my first criticisms of Pedro Morales was on his selection as the team captain. I understand the mentality of having your ‘best’ and most expensive player being your captain. I also understand given the Latin flare of the team that having a senior Latin player as the captain makes sense. Despite these obvious reasons I was opposed to the decision as I felt he was not the personality that you wanted leading the Whitecaps. You may recall that in his first season he had a tendency to pull off his shirt almost every time he scored a goal. Not exactly the behavior necessary when you score. With such a young squad, the Whitecaps were in need of a player that could be a role model for how you perform on the field. It was my opinion that Morales was the complete opposite. He complained, he show-boated, he was combative to referees. Although each player needs to take responsibility for their own actions, I laid a bit of the blame for Sebastian Fernandez card in the last game of the 2014 season, and some of Nico Mezquida’s antics in 2014, at the feet of Pedro Morales. Unfair? Maybe, but I felt that Morales had presented a negative way to behave on the field and that the young players were following that.

In his first season with the Whitecaps (2014), Pedro Morales received the Newcomer of the Year Award.  He was certainly a deserving recipient as he finished the season with 10 goals and 12 assists. However, on his arrival, Morales was touted as a deadball specialist and that was not on display in his first season. As the second half of 2014 progressed, Morales seemed to lose steam as a result of playing for 12 straight months. Throughout that first season he also had back problems that hampered his ability to deliver strong balls (and maybe a cause of his poor deadball play).

There was a belief that year two would be different with Morales coming back healthy and rested. It wasn’t any different. In fact, the 29-year-old experienced a sophomore slump in which he only started 15 matches (1,429 minutes) scoring a mere 6 goals; mainly from the penalty spot. Despite the, arguably, poor showing in his first two seasons, Carl Robinson felt his Captain was deserving of a contract extension. While Morales’ play, and injuries, was a key component to the controversy of a new contract, mixed in was the play of Nico Mezquida, who appeared to have a better relationship with countryman Octavio Rivero and whose on-field presence resulted in a more dynamic attack. In a salary cap league, the cheaper Mezquida appeared a better choice than the expensive Morales.

Last season the Vancouver Whitecaps experienced a power outage of offense. The main culprit was of course ‘striker’ Octavio Rivero. Again though, some of the blame could be placed at the feet of Pedro Morales who had not been the offensive catalyst he was touted as being. With offensive reinforcements added for 2016 and a suggested change of formation there was some hope among fans. The 2016 season did not start as hoped though. The Whitecaps lost their home opener to Montreal, were unable to score from open play, and Morales was down with an injury in just the 5th match of the season; with Mezquida still not fully fit to take over his position. Despite the injury against LA Galaxy, there was still reason for optimism surrounding Morales. Pedro came in to this season looking like a different player. He was appearing to be more like the player that was expected in 2014. He was looking dynamic and was making smart decisions. More importantly though, he was actually playing some defense! Sure, the injury led many to believe that it was going to be the same Morales as 2015, but I was not of the same mind. For me it was how long it would take Morales to get back and if he was able to stay in the lineup after. The key problem in 2015 was that Morales would come back for a game and then reinjure himself.

Since his return April 27th against Sporting Kansas City, Pedro Morales has remained looking like a different player than seasons past. In addition, we have seen the desired (at least from me) formation of having Morales and Mezquida on the field together; and it worked wonderfully. More importantly, Morales has been playing all over the field, in different positions, and being a leader hustling back on defense. If not for his hustle late against Chicago Fire (or was it Portland?) to chase back a potential breakaway, the Whitecaps do not leave with 3 points.

One of Morales’ achilles heels has been his subpar play on the road. With his injury risk and age (although he is only 30) it was expected that he would not travel to Toronto for the teams, and his, 3rd match in 7 days. Not only did Morales travel, but he started and played 89 minutes, scoring a goal and registering an assist. And guess what. His goal was from open play! When did he last do that???? It was also a beautiful goal with him curling it softly (what a concept) around the keeper by using the defender as a screen.

Finally, with Morales playing in a variety of positions on the field he has modified his style. It appears he is making better decisions of late and not trying to force the fancy play. He is still hitting the beautiful long-balls and one-touch cross-field bombs but he is also deciding when the small, intricate, play is better. Whether it is the pressure of Mezquida (and maybe Bolanos?) or something has finally clicked for Morales, 2016 has given us a different, better, Pedro Morales. For the Whitecaps to be successful they need their Captain to take the reins and be a positive influence on each match. He does not need to be the entire offense but rather the orchestrator. If he continues to show the play that he has provided over the last month (and really the entire season) the future looks bright for the Vancouver Whitecaps. Remember, it is not how you start but how you finish. Let’s see if the Caps and Morales can finish 2016 strong!