Joao Plata v. NE - 07.04.14
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Real Salt Lake's Joao Plata at the center of team's recent success

SANDY, Utah — Joao Plata is not just leading Real Salt Lake in scoring this season. He's leading the league in smiles.

Whether it was when he scored in the second half Saturday or while he hugged team owner Dell Loy Hansen in the locker room after Real Salt Lake beat Seattle 2-1 to take over first place in the Western Conference, Plata's smile is infectious. And his goalscoring has become somewhat amazing.

It was surprising when the 5-foot-2 forward scored a header against D.C. United a week ago. It was astonishing when he made it two headers in two games against the Sounders on Saturday when he thumped in a free kick from midfielder Luke Mulholland in the 53rd minute.

“I couldn't believe it was him again,” RSL captain Kyle Beckerman told reporters with a laugh. “That's Joao. He can score goals from any way. He's shown it this year. Left foot, right foot and now his head.”

Plata has picked up the scoring pace — he's on 11 goals this season, fifth in MLS — just when RSL need him. The team is still without all-time leading scorer Alvaro Saborio, and newly signed Argentine forward Sebastian Jaime is still awaiting a visa.

“I'm content with scoring goals with my head,” Plata told reporters, with teammate Luis Gil translating. “I don't mind it. I'm finding the ball and if it's coming to my head, I'll score it.”

And his teammates know there's more to Plata's play than just his goals.

“He is an an animal of a competitor," said RSL defender Chris Wingert. "I just love the way he competes at everything. His attitude. He's just on fire. Even if he doesn't win the ball, just the effort makes such a big difference.”

RSL Coach Jeff Cassar stuck to the RSL mantra — the team's the star — but added, "obviously, I love balls going in the back of the net. But I really appreciate his work on the defensive side as well.”

Still, nobody expected Plata to score on a header once last week, let alone again this time. Although Cassar was quick to point out that his team is doing a better job scoring on set plays in recent weeks.

“Yeah, [Seattle are] going to put Chad Marshall on Joao next time,” Beckerman said with a smile. “He's a special player. He really is. We've been leaning on him for goals this year, and we're going to continue to lean on him.”