SANDY — Given the way Real Salt Lake forward Joao Plata plays — like a boundless whirlwind of energy and aggression — you might not realize that he’s a bit on the shorter side.
Actually, at 5 foot 2, he pretty much is the shorter side.
His lack of ideal height, though, hasn’t stopped him from becoming a major factor in Real Salt Lake’s surge to the top of the MLS standings. Plata has three goals and eight assists this season, and after his one-goal, two-assist performance during RSL’s 4-2 victory over Portland on Friday night, Plata is firmly on the radar of fans and opponents alike.
Early in the first half — just minutes after he provided the assist on Luis Gil's opening goal — Plata thoroughly embarrassed Portland’s Andrew Jean-Baptiste with a step over and hesitation that had the defender lunging at air as Plata launched a shot off the far post and into the net.
Then, just before halftime, Plata showed plenty of spunk when he popped right up after a hard foul and exchanged hearty shoves with Jean-Baptiste, who measures in at a robust 6 foot 2 and 205 pounds. Both players received yellow cards, though afterward they seemed to make peace — with Plata putting his arm around Jean-Baptiste’s waist as the hulking defender rested his hand on Plata’s head.
When Plata was replaced by Robbie Findley in the 60th minute, he exited the pitch to a well-deserved standing ovation from the crowd of more than 20,000 raucous fans at Rio Tinto Stadium.
“I think Joao is somebody who has been playing really, really well for a long stretch now,” RSL coach Jason Kreis said. “He’s been an important player for us with assists and goals.”
Plata’s rising playing time, though, has more to do with his nonstop motor than the stats in the box score.
“The one area we were always a little bit doubtful on during the first few months of the season was how much he was going to be willing to work for us when he didn’t have the ball,” Kreis said after Friday’s victory. “Tonight I saw an effort like I rarely see with forwards. The amount of defensive work that he was putting in was second to none, and that was absolutely critical to the success of this team.”
And the team has certainly been successful, especially of late. Real Salt Lake sits atop the Western Conference standings with a league-high 48 points, and much of that success has to do with a suddenly explosive offense.
After suffering through a rough patch in July — when team stalwarts Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando, Alvaro Saborio and Tony Beltran were missing while playing in the Gold Cup — RSL has scored 11 goals in the past three matches, and, with the playoffs looming, seems to be hitting its stride at just the right time.
“I think typically in the middle of the season, when you’re in July and August, you get to that point ... that sometimes it does begin to feel like a bit of a grind,” Kreis said. "Having said that, we got through it pretty well this year. In past years we’ve had really bad dips. This year was a small dip, and I think a factor in that was how many players we were missing at that time as well. And now we’re back at it. We’re towards the end of the season and we have three trophies to win. So I think our guys are up for it.”