With apologies to Alvaro Saborio and all of Real Salt Lake’s other hard working attacking players, the one who has made the biggest difference this season is Joao Plata. Despite carrying a diminutive 5-foot-2-inch frame to go with about 135 pounds of soaking wet armor, a lack of size matters none to the Ecuadorian, who is enjoying his best season yet as a professional.
His five goals are tied for best on the team with Saborio. What makes that number of goals even more remarkable is that he’s scored that many in just six games this season. Yet, it’s the little things -- the things you rarely read about -- that make Plata the claret and cobalt’s most dangerous player.
The 49th pick of Toronto FC in the 2011 Major League Soccer SuperDraft, Plata never caught on fully at TFC, and in 2013 was traded to Real Salt Lake. In 29 games last season, he scored four goals in 29 games -- but what he has brought to RSL is that greasy speed for which he’s known and a tenacity and work rate that the team has been missing since it traded Fabian Espindola to New York.
Here are five reasons why Plata is taking Real Salt Lake to another level.
Like the great Cristiano Ronaldo, Plata can play several positions on the field due in part to a tremendous first touch and a field awareness that allows him to drop back into spots in RSL’s midfield diamond -- even as a forward.
His vision helps RSL build attacks going forward with greater numbers and frequency, making it more difficult for opposing defenses to read into what he’s going to do next.
According to RSL head coach Jeff Cassar on Wednesday, May 7 in the Deseret News, Plata‘s work rate makes others work hard as well.
“He’s been fantastic on both sides of the ball. He’s been exciting on the offensive side, and as soon as the ball turns over he’s getting himself into good defensive shape and I think that’s helping him out on the offensive end as well,” Cassar said.
The one variable RSL has lacked since Fabian Espindola was traded -- and Robbie Findley was sidelined with an injury -- is speed up top.
Since Plata’s insertion into the starting lineup, his speed has made a tremendous difference in kick-starting the team’s counterattacks, as well as keeping the defense at bay. He’s not only adept at going at defenders, he has the top class speed to get behind them as well.
Even Major League Soccer is beginning to recognize -- as have his teammates -- that Plata is on the cusp of something great.
The difference between what Plata does and what Saborio does is Plata is willing to do the work. Last year, he had just one goal at this point in the season -- and he already has five this season.
That’s because he’s not only getting himself into scoring positions in the attacking third -- he’s getting others into those spots, having had two assists on the season as well.
Plata is the yin to Saborio’s yang, and the teamwork that the duo -- and RSL itself -- are creating could lead RSL to a second MLS Cup title.