Already in his young career, Joao Plata has occupied several different roles for Real Salt Lake. The 24-year-old Ecuadorian (Plata will turn 25 on March 1) came to Utah as a somewhat unknown prospect who had spent a year and a half with Toronto FC. A formation change and several evolving partnerships later, Plata is now among a central core of young talent that General Manager Craig Waibel is building around with a clear message – at RSL, the future is bright and the future is now.
“It’s been interesting. He’s had a lot of different partnerships and a lot of different positions,” Waibel said. “He’s found a way to be successful in multiple positions when healthy. The big thing for him is staying healthy. There are some new players around him this year and he’ll find a way to get his shots.”
When he first arrived at RSL prior to the 2013 season, Plata was a sparkplug off the bench in Jason Kreis’ two-forward set along with Alvaro Saborio. Since then, he has partnered with several others in that formation before RSL’s switch to a 4-2-3-1 entering the 2015 season. In both situations, he earned Real Salt Lake’s Golden Boot – in 2014 with 13 goals and six assists and in 2016 with nine goals and 12 assists. The one season in between, he missed a chunk of the season with a fractured foot, limiting his productivity in the new formation.
However, Plata isn’t new to transitions and adjustments.
In 2011, he came to MLS seeking a new opportunity. At just 18 years old at the time, he had the world in front of him and knew that if he was able to shine in MLS, he could get more involved with his national team in Ecuador. That move paid immediate dividends when he made his international debut in June of 2011 at his club’s home stadium in Toronto. On that TFC side, he notched three goals and five assists in 26 matches, and while he was productive on the field, he sought something different off of it. After a season of discontent in 2012, he was traded to RSL and made quick work of adjusting to his new surroundings – and an atmosphere that was much more conducive to supporting a player like Plata – filled with bravado, but still seeking growth.
With a strong Latin contingent and veteran players abounding, it was the perfect scenario to foster his growth on the field in an environment that would keep the pressure on him to perform reasonable.
“I knew the team and I liked the way the team played. They were always one of the top teams in the league and that motivated me to come,” Plata said. “The experience made it easier for me. I knew I had to come and score goals and the experienced players – Javier Morales, Alvaro Saborio, Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando – made it easier for me.”
Morales and Saborio were key to his early development with RSL, both taking him under their wings in different ways.
However, now he is making a new adjustment and with his new contract signed this week, the club is showing confidence that he can not only make the transition smoothly, but thrive in the role of leader among his Latin peers.
Now out from the shelter of the likes of Morales, Saborio, Sebastian Jaime and Juan Manuel Martinez, he will seek to fly on his own – a challenge he embraces with open arms.
“That makes me stronger. It’s unfortunate they had to go, but it tells me that I have to keep working hard to compete and to keep succeeding,” he said. “This is my fifth season. I’m going to try to be a leader, especially with the Latin players. I want to help out and continue that leadership.”
That approach is a far leap from the player who smiled and danced with a similar swagger with Toronto FC in 2011, but not quite with the full belief to support that bravado. Luis Silva saw that player in 2012 when he was picked by Toronto in the SuperDraft and drew a quick friendship with Plata – the Silva-Plata puns were endless as they developed an on-field cohesion to match their off-field pairing.
Now back with RSL for a second stint, Silva has seen tremendous growth in his friend and teammate.
“He’s come a long way. It’s not easy to come from another country to this league and he’s done well for himself,” Silva said. “He’s been surrounded by good people and he’s taken advantage of the opportunities. He’s just going to keep getting better as a player and as a person.”
Plata can now look ahead to an ever-expanding ceiling. He still has realistic goals of becoming a regular with the Ecuador National Team – goals that Waibel believes he has the attributes to achieve in the near future even if there is still work to be done to fine-tune many of those skills.
“The ceiling should be his national team. He has the potential, he has the speed and power and the mobility and technical assets to reach that level,” Waibel said. “He needs to make sure he is as fit or more fit than he’s ever been. He needs to continue to take strides forward. He should get stronger and fitter over the next few years, but that’s something that can be difficult because you have to manage so many different things and those are things you have to learn. And he’s still quite young and he’s learning some of those things.”
For his part, Plata is ready to take the next step in his development. But his sights are set on team goals, first and foremost.
“My main goal is for the team to win something – as a team – the MLS Cup, the Supporters’ Shield, the U.S. Open Cup. Personally, I want to score goals and have assists, but I’m always thinking about the team’s results,” he said. “I keep working hard. Unfortunately, in 2013 we couldn’t be champions. That drives me to be better every single day. Last year was a good year and I’m going to work even harder to make it a better year.”