Whitecaps’ Morales hopes to return to 2014 form

Vancouver Whitecaps' Pedro Morales, of Chile, celebrates after scoring a goal on a penalty kick. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

VANCOUVER — Pedro Morales wants to forget about last year.

Coming off a banner 2014 with the Vancouver Whitecaps that included being named the top newcomer to Major League Soccer, the Chilean playmaker was cut down by a series of leg injuries in 2015 that resulted in him starting just two regular-season games from the beginning of June onwards.

While his club was enjoying success on the pitch, Vancouver’s captain was mostly miserable off it because of successive calf and hamstring ailments he couldn’t shake.

"Half the year was good for me," said Morales. "No injuries, playing well."

The Whitecaps would eventually go on to win the Amway Canadian Championship and finish second in the Western Conference with a franchise-record 53 points before bowing out in the MLS playoffs to Portland.

Morales returned to play a part in the two-game aggregate series against the Timbers, but looked nothing like the man who scored 10 goals and added 12 assists the previous season.

The 30-year-old midfielder went home to rest and recuperate before flying back to Vancouver at the beginning of January to get a headstart on pre-season training with the Whitecaps’ medical staff in hopes of putting an end to his injury woes.

Morales said the signs, at least so far, look promising.

"I feel very good. I haven’t had any problems," he said after a recent practice before the team left for a camp in Arizona. "I’m working hard to make my body strong for a long season with no injuries.

"It was important to come back early to prepare."

On a team that has had trouble generating offence at the best of times, it’s critical Morales stays in the lineup as much as possible. Vancouver scored just 45 goals in 34 games last season, good for 11th in the 20-team league.

"Pedro’s one of the most naturally gifted athletes I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in football a long time," said Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson. "If we can keep Pedro healthy … then we’ve got a right (talent) on our hands, which is what we know."

Vancouver’s highest-paid player, Morales started 15 games in 2015 while contributing six goals and four assists. When he’s on, he can pull the strings from the middle of the park with pinpoint passes crucial to an attack that now includes newly signed striker Masato Kudo.

"Pedro is important to this team and he’s shown the quality that he has," said Whitecaps goalkeeper David Ousted. "Hopefully we have him healthy throughout the season."

Injuries happen, but minimizing the risk to Morales while trying to ensure he doesn’t burn out should go a long way in determining whether Vancouver will contend or take a step back in a league where cross-continental travel has to be factored into team selection.

"I’m already looking at the first three or four games of the season. I know in my mind what I would like to do," said Robinson, before adding with a grin: "Will Pedro play every minute of every game? No, he won’t. You can tell him that."

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