By nature, attacking players go through hot and cold stretches. However, Real Salt Lake forward Joao Plata has undergone a bit of an evolution during the 2017 season that keeps him among the most dangerous wingers in the league during those hot stretches and has made him equally effective in helping RSL stay in the win column in the matches that he isn’t finding the scoresheet through goals and assists.
That maturation is a sign that Plata is in the midst of taking a major step in his development that could have him featuring more regularly for Ecuador and could prove instrumental in elevating RSL back among the elite teams in Major League Soccer.
“Sometimes the impact Joao has on a game can be overshadowed by the fact that he didn’t score or didn’t assist. But the importance of the way he plays and when he’s playing well is remarkable for the success of our team. It takes a lot of maturity and I give Joao a lot of credit because he has started to understand that sometimes even when he doesn’t show up on the scoresheet, his impact on the game and how those goals came – he’s starting to recognize that more and more,” Real Salt Lake General Manager Craig Waibel said. “As professional players it’s hard sometimes to keep your head up when you’re not scoring. When the team is winning, it always has something to do with the way he’s playing.”
When he is focused and switched on, Plata is a magnet for defenders – whether he is scoring or not. Opponents have to be mindful of him at all times or perish under the weight of his danger in the attacking third. He is explosive and lethal and when teams respect him, it creates paths for his teammates to exploit.
“I think the biggest thing for Joao is that when he’s playing at his best, he attracts one or two defenders all the time,” Waibel said. “What that does is throws the balance off of any team. When you have to slide a center back over because you know he’s going to beat your outside back, it frees up the next piece and the next piece.”
Plata, who celebrated his 26th birthday on Thursday, has 40 goals and 40 assists in 169 career MLS matches. Of those, 37 goals and 35 assists have come since he made the move to Real Salt Lake in 2013. And over the last two years – when he has been at his healthiest after fracturing his foot in the first training session of preseason in 2015 – he has 16 goals and 17 assists in 59 matches. That consistency over two seasons earned him his first call-up to the Ecuador National Team since before the injury that limited him to just 19 matches in 2015.
Proving that he could maintain that consistency was key to earning that call last season.
But simply receiving invitations to join the national team is just the start for Plata’s aspirations and his motivation to reach those goals has him in his best preseason form since joining the club in 2013.
“He came back in preseason raring to go. He’s been one of the most energetic and exciting and hardest workers in preseason. That’s what I want to see,” RSL Head Coach Mike Petke said. “It’s one thing if you taste a little success like our front four did last year. Sometimes it’s easy to get to that point and sit on it. As opposed to realizing that you have to work even harder the next year not just to maintain it, but elevate it as well. Plata is one that is taking that opportunity and running with it.”
The relationship between player and coach has been instrumental in getting him back on track, as well. When Petke took the reins as head coach in April, he and Plata would spar occasionally. Those differences didn’t cause a split, but instead brought the two closer together in finding common ground to help both attain their goals and raise their individual expectations.
“In the short amount of time we’ve worked together, he gets the way I work. I’ve also learned what makes Joao tick and ways to speak to him and to push him and I think we have a better understanding of each other,” Petke said. “I think there’s a mutual respect there. We have many talks. That bit of interesting dynamic between us pushes him and it pushes me as well.”
Plata and Real Salt Lake take the field for the first time in 2018 on Saturday against FC Dallas. The Claret-and-Cobalt return home to Rio Tinto Stadium on March 10 against expansion LAFC. Tickets for the home opener are available at RSL.com/tickets.