Just a month ago, Joao Plata was struggling to get any minutes at all for Real Salt Lake. Facing a barren stretch in front of goal compounded by inconsistent playing time and some minor injuries, Plata was marginalized to a handful of substitute appearances between mid-May and mid-July.
Then he came off the bench against Minnesota United FC on July 14, scored two goals, and hasn't looked back. In the four games since, he's picked up two goals and two assists to help keep RSL afloat in the Western Conference race.
In total, Plata leads his side with seven goals this season and is fourth on the team in assists with four despite essentially two months on the bench. He has already tied his output from last season and has done so in 13 fewer appearances and 1,200 fewer minutes than 2017.
Plata's recent run, dating back to that Minnesota game, has accounted for six of his side's last seven goals, but that uptick in form has only once translated to a win, as RSL dropped that first game and went 1-0-3 in the following four games. The player and team now have a crucial opportunity to turn that production in front of goal into three points in their trip to LAFC on Wednesday night (10 pm ET | ESPN2 - full TV & streaming info),
The Claret-and-Cobalt are clinging to the Western Conference's final playoff spot, one point behind LAFC and two points back of the LA Galaxy. A win at Banc of California Stadium would see Real climb above both LA clubs and potentially the Portland Timbers, depending on how their game at D.C. United finishes earlier in the night. If RSL lose to LAFC, they fall four points behind the expansion side with one more game played and would drop nearly level with Vancouver Whitecaps and Seattle Sounders on points per game.
If Plata and RSL can capitalize on the opportunity, it could prove to be a season-defining moment for both player and club after one of their most up-and-down years together.
The mid-season stretch out of the lineup wasn't Plata's first extended spell on the sidelines even this season. In the beginning of the year, he went unused for three of the first four games and head coach Mike Petke challenged him to improve defensively. When he returned to the lineup, he scored in RSL's 3-0 win against the Colorado Rapids. It appeared Plata was back on track.
But that was the last goal Plata scored before the two-goal performance off the bench in July, as back and hamstring injuries limited to just 143 over 10 games between May 12 and his return to the scoresheet against Minnesota. Additionally, during MLS' Secondary Transfer Window, Real also reportedly considered trading the attacker. Nothing came to fruition, but Petke didn't flat out deny it, either.
"We get calls every week about a large number of our players. It’s the nature of our business," Petke said on ESPN 700 in July. "We call teams about other players. It’s just very interesting that all of a sudden, something comes out targeting Joao alone. Joao is one of 10 or 12 players that we get called about, not that we call teams about, we get called about on a weekly basis."
As we now know, Petke and the RSL brass did not ultimately end up turning one of those calls into a potentially lucrative deal. Their challenge now is to back that decision up, and there will be no better place to start than Wednesday's high-stakes game in L.A.