VANCOUVER - The Vancouver Whitecaps hope to find a new midfield maestro when they visit Real Salt Lake on Saturday.
Whitecaps captain Pedro Morales, often described as a maestro because of how he controls the offence from his central midfielder position, will serve a one-game suspension after receiving a red card in last weekend's loss to San Jose. His absence leaves a large hole in Vancouver's lineup.
Coach Carl Robinson said Nicolas Mezquida, 23, and Mauro Rosales, 34, who hasn't played since mid-March due to an ankle injury, are leading candidates to replace Morales.
"(Morales') absence will give someone else an opportunity, whether that's Nico (Mezquida) or Mauro (Rosales) or we change to go two (strikers) up top," said Robinson.
Robinson has used mainly a lone-striker formation this season but said he could alter the team's offensive alignment slightly following the loss to San Jose. The Western Conference-leading Whitecaps (4-2-1) are seeking their first-ever road win against unbeaten RSL (2-0-3).
"We didn't get to the levels that we expect on the weekend but prior to that we've been very good so we won't change too much," said Robinson.
Mezquida, a tenacious Uruguay native in his second season with Vancouver, has one goal this season after putting five of his eight shots on net. He has been used primarily as a winger but indicated a preference for the offensive central midfield spot.
"If I have the chance (to) play, I am excited because it's the first time this season I will play in my position," he said.
Mezquida hopes to relive the memory of his first MLS goal, which he scored in Salt Lake last season, but might have some rust to shake off after being rested at San Jose. However, Rosales has more to overcome as he attempts to return to the lineup.
"I will be happy to be back in the team, because it was a serious injury," said Rosales. "It took me five weeks, almost, to recover.
"But I feel great and also excited, confident that the team is playing very well."
The Whitecaps have a 2-1-0 road record. Rosales, an Argentinian, is also in his second season with Vancouver and fifth in MLS and is confident the club can field a suitable replacement for Morales.
"It's going to be difficult to compare who is playing at the same level (as) Pedro," said Rosales. "But we can also put (in) somebody with the same mentality, same concentration, same willingness to get into the team and do well."
Robinson said he'll have no trouble starting Rosales despite his long layoff.
"If Mauro is fit and ready, Mauro will be involved," said Robinson. "He's that important to us — and brings a different level of quality to the table."
Morales' replacement will look to get the ball to first-year striker Octavio Rivero, who has a league-high five goals and has put 13-of-23 shot attempts on the net. Third-year winger Kekuta Manneh, 20, could also be a frequent passing target with a goal and assist while putting five-of-18 shots on goal.
"It'll be difficult (without Morales)," said Manneh. "He's been our star player. We're going to miss him, but I feel that we have enough players that we need to step up and play that role."
NOTE — Robinson said Canadian midfielder Kianz Froese, 18, could also see action with Morales' absence.