SANDY — Javier Morales summed up the recent play of Joao Plata very simply, “he’s on fire.”
It’s hard to argue with the assessment.
Plata scored two goals last week in Chicago, including the 93rd-minute winner as Real Salt Lake rallied for an unlikely 3-2 victory to remain unbeaten on the season.
The diminutive striker was named MLS Player of the Week for his exploits — joining teammate Nick Rimando who has won the award twice already this year.
In his two starts since returning from a three-week hamstring injury, Plata scored three goals. In his three starts prior to the injury he scored two goals and recorded two assists.
“He’s been unreal, his first touch is amazing. He can fire off a quick shot, he can get in behind and he’s unselfish. He’s doing everything for us, we’re very fortunate to have him as good as he is right now,” said defender Nat Borchers.
Plata is tied with Alvaro Saborio for the team lead with five goals — good enough for fourth in MLS — and he’s tied for second in the club with two assists. The Ecuadorian native has recorded at least one goal or assist in all five games he’s started.
“He’s been fantastic on both sides of the ball. He’s been exciting on the offensive side, and as soon as the ball turns over he’s getting himself into good defensive shape and I think that’s helping him out on the offensive end as well,” said RSL coach Jeff Cassar. “A lot of the guys on the team are feeding off of his movement and his play.”
A year after recording four goals and eight assists in 29 appearances — including 19 starts — Plata has emerged as a must start for Real Salt Lake this season when he’s healthy.
“This biggest difference from this year to last is he’s taking a bigger initiative on himself to do some things individual in final third. He’s one of my favorite players to play with cause he’s a bit of a hybrid,” said Ned Grabavoy.
Plata typically plays under Saborio as the second striker, but as Grabavoy said, Plata sees the game more from a midfielder’s standpoint and likes to drop back into the midfield diamond to help build the attack.
The result has been electrifying at times. In the 72nd minute last Saturday at Chicago, Plata found a tiny pocket of space within Chicago’s defense at the top of the penalty area and after receiving a pass from Morales he quickly fired and tucked the ball inside the near post.
His finish goal kick-started RSL’s comeback, with Saborio scoring the tying goal in the 90th minute and then Plata the winner in stoppage time.
“(Chicago) wasn’t one of his best games, cause I’ve seen him play better, but he had two chances and he scored two goals. He’s that kind of player that you need cause they have something special,” said Morales. “We have to take advantage of that.”