There is only one team in MLS with three players that have at least five goals this season. That is Real Salt Lake’s forward core of Joao Plata (5 goals, 6 assists), Yura Movsisyan (5 goals) and Juan Manuel Martinez (5 goals, 2 assists). That prolific performance through RSL’s first 14 matches has the club third in MLS at 7-4-3 on the season and this month they are the cover story in RSL’s gameday program, The Sovereign.
Real Salt Lake General Manager Craig Waibel is not one for hyperbole. But when asked about the forward trio of Juan Manuel Martinez, Yura Movsisyan and Joao Plata, he is left shaking his head. A former stalwart MLS defender, Waibel views his trio not just through the prism of RSL GM, but also through an opponent’s view. When he sees the dominance and diversity of that threesome and adds in the creative string-pulling of Javier Morales, he is left in shock and awe.
“When I look at our front four, when we’re firing on all cylinders,” he surmised searching for just the right adjective for the fear-inducing panic that often strikes RSL opponents, “We’re terrifying.”
The circumstances that brought those three players together involves some heartbreak on the part of Waibel and the RSL technical staff, as signing Martinez and Movsisyan just months apart were the fruits of countless hours working the phones, negotiating with agents, persuading players and conferencing with the league, all while operating with the faith from Real Salt Lake Owner Dell Loy Hansen that the millions he would be spending to unite these three puzzle pieces would pay dividends on and off the field.
It was almost a much different look to the forward group, though.
In 2015’s summer transfer window, Waibel and his staff very nearly signed U.S. National Team forward Aron Johannsson. The now 25-year-old was coming off of a season with AZ in Holland and was looking to make the move stateside. RSL was among his suitors as the club sought a high-impact central striker, but for one reason or another, the deal didn’t come to fruition and Johannsson signed with Werder Bremen in Germany for a much higher salary than was being discussed with RSL and MLS.
The next call came from Movsisyan’s agent, Patrick McCabe, and Waibel was back on the emotional roller coaster of a transfer window. Movsisyan, who started his professional career in MLS in 2006 and won MLS Cup with Real Salt Lake in 2009 before heading overseas, wanted to return to Major League Soccer and had just one destination in his heart – Rio Tinto Stadium.
That, too, would cause heartache for Waibel.
“We we’re attacking that vehemently with every ounce of energy we have. And the timing wasn’t right,” Waibel lamented. “We had great conversations with Spartak Moscow, but the timing wasn’t right. It takes a long time to work those things out.”
Two days after coming to the conclusion that Movsisyan wouldn’t be wearing the Claret-and-Cobalt in 2015, another name came onto Waibel’s radar – “El Burrito.” The Argentine forward was out of contract with Boca Juniors, the legendary club in Buenos Aires, and suddenly Real Salt Lake was in pursuit of a former Argentina Player of the Year who had won the FIFA Club World Cup in 2012.
“It was almost like a lightbulb went off for all of us. We’d been solely focused on a position of striker when the truth is, here’s a player who can make us exponentially better,” Waibel said. “It just refueled that excitement for our department.”
After a series of backs-and-forths with agents, leagues, players and families, Martinez joined up with Plata for the final stretch in 2015 and it was clear early that RSL had found something special. Still in need of that lethal central striker, the lines of communication re-opened with Movsisyan in the winter transfer window. After another series of ups and downs, that deal finally fell into place and the Armenian National Teamer completed the trio.
Five months earlier, Waibel was heartbroken that the deal to land Movsisyan wasn’t going to get finalized. Now, he not only had his target, but added another top-flight forward to the mix in the process.
With the three forwards in place, Waibel took the opportunity to sit back and watch how their chemistry would develop on the field.
In Movsisyan, he has a classic No. 9 with the versatility to be affective in different ways when the matchup or situation calls for it. Plata is a feisty dynamo who works his way into opportunistic spaces and thrives in 1v1 situations when he can run at a defender. Martinez … he’s a magician, with a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t ability to mystify opposing defenses with his deft technical skill and soccer acumen.
“Those three guys not only challenge each other across the top to get better. They challenge Javi. Javi now has three guys. He’s got to use all three of them to keep them happy. And the greatest thing about great attacking players is that they want the ball all the time. And when they don’t get it, they get upset. Some people think that’s a negative. I think it’s a positive. It puts a ton of pressure on the No. 10 to get the right amount of passes to each guy to keep them happy because they all want to impact the game and have the ability to,” Waibel explained. “That’s what’s making us unique right now. If Juan’s on, you get the ball to his feet and great things happen. If he’s not on on the day, Plata has been fantastic in isolating guys and running at guys. If he’s not on, we always have the option to play Yura and Yura is a handful. He terrifies center backs and he’s just super exciting when he gets the ball 20 yards to goal – he can rip a ball through the net if you give him the chance.”
It has made for an exciting attack for RSL that has the Claret-and-Cobalt back in contention among the top teams in the Western Conference after a one-year hiatus from the upper echelon.