Stejskal: Real Salt Lake's Joao Plata emerging as true MLS star

He’s rarely mentioned in the same class as some of the league’s highest-profile attacking stars, but Real Salt Lake’s Joao Plata is showing this year why he’s one of the top offensive players in MLS.

The little Ecuadorean, still just 24, has been the best player for Real Salt Lake in their impressive 2-0-2 start, scoring or assisting on six of RSL’s eight goals and picking up the Etihad Airways MLS Player of the Month award for March.

He put in perhaps his best performance of the young season on Saturday at Sporting Kansas City, leading Salt Lake – who were without Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando, Javier Morales, Burrito Martinez and several others – to a really, really solid 2-1 win against their previously perfect rivals.

Playing without their two best midfielders, RSL were content to sit deep, clog the middle and hit on the counter on Saturday. The 5-foot-2 Plata isn’t exactly the prototypical, physical relief valve for a team using those tactics, but he was excellent as an outlet in Kansas. He was the main reason why RSL, who were out-possessed 64.6 to 37.4 percent, were so clean and efficient when they had the ball, holding things up when the situation dictated and attacking the SKC defense when the opportunity arose.

And Plata was also clinical in the final third. He assisted on Justen Glad’s first-half opener and could’ve had an easy goal had Yura Movsisyan spotted him unmarked in the center of the box on a second-half chance that ended with Movsisyan hitting the bar. Most impressively, he finished with an outstanding seven key passes, the second-highest single-game total in MLS this year.

For those of us who have watched Plata for a while, his play hasn’t exactly been a surprise. His talent has been apparent since his first year in the league in 2011, when he tallied three goals and five assists in the regular season and impressed in the Canadian Championship and CONCACAF Champions League for the hot mess that was Toronto FC.

But his career didn’t really begin to take off until he moved to Salt Lake ahead of the 2013 season, where I got the chance to see him firsthand in my time working for the club. Plata emerged as a key contributor for a really good RSL team that year, scoring four goals and adding eight assists in 29 regular-season appearances.

He broke out in a big way in 2014, tallying 13 goals and six assists in 26 league games, playing off the shoulder of a bigger striker that year. He routinely terrorized opposing defenses with frequent runs through the left channel which were often punctuated by a shot on frame.

Plata’s ability to pick up the ball out wide and create off the dribble was a big reason why RSL switched from their diamond 4-4-2 to the 4-3-3 ahead of the 2015 season, and he was expected to carry a big load through the team’s tactical transition.

It didn’t pan out. He broke his foot on the first day of preseason training and struggled with the injury for all of 2015, finishing the season with just four goals and four assists in 19 matches. It was no coincidence that RSL struggled along with him, as the club missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

Now Plata’s healthy, and, as Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle noted, he’s got the keys to the car.

The early returns have been excellent. Plata’s got three goals and three assists, RSL’s attack looks like one of the most dangerous in the league and, despite a tough early schedule (three out of four league matches on the road), the club remains unbeaten in MLS.

I'm not sure Plata will rack up enough gaudy numbers to truly challenge for end-of-season awards, but he is turning into a legit star. It’s far too early to say whether that’ll mean a return to the playoffs for Salt Lake (a lot hinges on their back line, which, it should be noted, was excellent on Saturday), but it should be more than enough to keep them interesting.

After a drab 2015, that’s good news for RSL.

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