VANCOUVER, BC - When you come to Major League Soccer as a Designated Player, the pressure is on to perform from Day 1.
If those early games prove to be a struggle, the questions come in quickly: Does the signing just need more time to settle into his new surroundings? Is the player going to prove to be an expensive bust? We've all seen both scenarios play out, with the analysis sometimes unforgiving.
Three days after being officially unveiled as Vancouver Whitecaps FC's newest DP last March, the Chilean came on and made quite an impression in the final 25 minutes of Vancouver's 4-1 opening-day demolition of the New York Red Bulls, scoring the 'Caps' fourth and final goal and assisting on their third.
For a player many were previously unaware of, it was a statement of intent for the season to come. Despite showing visible signs of fatigue as the year went on after 15 straight months of playing, Morales led Whitecaps FC with 10 goals and 12 assists. His performances were key as Vancouver finished last season with their best MLS point total, a playoff spot and their first berth in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Now well rested, and with a year of MLS experience under his belt, the question many are asking is: Can the 'Caps captain get even better in 2015?
"I've been working to get much better," Morales told MLSSoccer.com recently. "You can talk about more pressure for more goals, more assists. I've been playing well, but I've been working hard and I feel good.
"I've been working to play good for the team and for the Whitecaps to be higher up in the playoffs," Morales said. "We need to take it step by step, and it's necessary to win the first game. First game, second game, then step by step and go to the playoffs."
Morales was pivotal to the Vancouver's success last year. If the playmaker was on form, the 'Caps were an unstoppable, well-oiled machine, with the Chilean spraying sublime passes all over the pitch. But when Morales had an off day, they struggled.
Though head coach Carl Robinson would never describe Whitecaps FC as so dependent on one man, he is fully aware of how important an in-form Morales is to the club. Despite how well he did in his first MLS season, Robinson is demanding more from his captain in the upcoming campaign.
"He can get better, without a doubt," Robinson told media. "He's had a good rest under his belt. Last season, I think people saw what he's about. He's a very talented player. He really is a super player and a very good human being as well. A great guy to have in the locker room."
What Robinson wants from Morales this season is simple: More goals.
"He didn't score one free kick last year, and I've challenged him this year to score more free kicks and to score more from open play, because the quality he possesses when you see him on a daily basis is absolutely top-drawer," Robinson said. "He makes players around him better, but I also want him to get better as well. I believe he can get better. Not just him though, but a number of my players."
Morales' journey to Major League Soccer is an interesting one that traverses three continents. After five seasons in the Chilean Primera Division, where he scored 31 goals in 133 appearances in all competitions, Morales caught the eye of European scouts and made the move to Croatian top-flight club Dinamo Zagreb in 2008.
He spent three seasons in Croatia, winning the league title every year and appearing in both the UEFA Champions League and Europa League. His 24 goals in 60 appearances for Zagreb impressed onlookers and earned him the chance to play in the league he had always wanted to play in: Spain's La Liga.
"My dream was to play in Spain," Morales admits. "Before I came here, I played one year in Spain. It was a good experience for me, and I think La Liga is the best league in the world, but I had some problems with the coach in Málaga. Sometimes I played, sometimes I didn't."
After joining Málaga initially on loan and inking a permanent deal in June 2013, Morales' Spanish dreams turned into an unhappy time. He made just 22 appearances, managing to score four goals in the process.
The midfielder had been brought to the club by Manuel Pellegrini, but when the current Manchester City boss left at the end of the 2012-13 season, his successor, Bernd Schuster, did not see Morales in the same light.
That was when Robinson came calling. Morales was immediately impressed by what Robinson had to say about his plans for the player and the club, and the Chilean's North American adventure was to begin.
"When talking to the coach here, I felt confident about coming," Morales said. "We talked about playing more here and the situation for my family. I think it was a good decision for me."
That family side is very important to Morales, who celebrated the birth of his second child during the offseason. He feels at home in Vancouver.
It has not all been plain sailing, though. The grueling travel schedule that MLS demands exacerbated a niggling back injury, but Morales is very happy in the league.
"I've enjoyed the last year playing in MLS," Morales said. "It's different, but I enjoy it. Last year was a good experience for me: coming here to a different league, a different country, but I feel good. I have a lot of confidence now. I'm happy here."
Morales' performances last season wowed many, with some wondering whether they would lead to him adding to his 11 international caps with Chile. That question may have been answered when Morales was not part of the Chilean B team that beat the US in January, and the midfielder does not see his international situation changing any time soon.
"I think it's no chance now," Morales honestly admits. "They have Copa América in June, and they have so many players now. They have 20 players sure to go, so I think this year may be difficult. But I'm working with my club here. My mentality is now to concentrate here, not the Chilean team, but it's very nice when you play in the national team."
Chile may not have been paying attention, but those within MLS were, and Morales was named the MLS Newcomer of the Year in December. Now fully rested and raring to go, Morales wants more and feels that Robinson has put together a squad capable of doing just that.
"These friendly games have been good for me, physically, in preparation for the first game against Toronto at BC Place," Morales feels. "We have a good team, and I have a lot of expectations this year for the team."
Participate in the best sporting experience in Vancouver! The 2015 Whitecaps FC season kicks off on March 7 versus Toronto FC at BC Place. Whitecaps FC Season Tickets are now on sale. In addition to Season Tickets, Whitecaps FC offer a flexible range of ticket products, including Half-Season Packs, 5-Packs, Student Half-Season Tickets, and a Youth Soccer Half-Season Ticket. For more information on 2015 Season Tickets, visit whitecapsfc.com/tickets.