Joao Plata is quickly turning into a top forward in MLS as Real Salt Lake remain the only undefeated club in the league.
Joao Plata might be the smallest player in the history of Major League Soccer, but he stands tall when it comes to finding the back of the net.
The 5-foot-3 Ecuadorian striker is turning heads early in the MLS season as he has recorded four goals in five games for Real Salt Lake, the only team that remains undefeated in the league. With the Copa America Centenario looming in the horizon, the 24-year-old is starting to make a solid case for a possible call-up by the Ecuadoran National Team, who will be facing the likes of Brazil, Peru and Haiti this summer.
Plata’s rise in MLS potentially opens a door that had been shut on him last year. The RSL forward broke his foot during the 2015 preseason and struggled with the injury through the ensuing MLS campaign as he finished with just four goals in 19 games. Gustavo Quinteros took over Ecuador as manager in Jan. 2015, further dwindling the opportunities for the young forward, who last played for his national side on Oct. 15, 2014, when he scored twice in a 5-1 win over El Salvador.
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“I haven’t been called up since head coach Gustavo took over, but I always try to play well, score goals, deliver assists, and help my club win so that in any moment I can contribute if I am called in,” Plata said in an interview for FutbolMLS.com’s podcast Tiro Libre.
And while Plata has been impressive this season, it’s not necessarily a surprise for those who have followed his MLS career since 2011. He started as an unknown international guest during that year’s MLS Combine as part of a group of players who eventually left the league after struggling to settle, including countryman Víctor Estupiñán, who famously said he was going to score 30 goals in his debut season.
Plata impressed with his speed and his scoring prowess, but at 5’3, there were big concerns in terms of how he’d deal with the taller and stronger defenders he would find in MLS. Still, he was selected by Toronto FC in the MLS SuperDraft. After a couple of tough seasons trying to adapt to the style played in MLS, Plata found a way to not only remain in the league, but thrive.
He had to wait until 2014 to truly break out as a star in MLS, but it was well worth the patience for Real Salt Lake as he scored 13 goals in 26 games. After his difficult injury-plagued season in 2015, Plata has rediscovered his form again, putting danger on opponents with speed and a plenty of tricky South-American creativity down the flanks.
And while he has been impressive in front of goal, Plata has also offered a kind of leadership that’s not easily found in 24-year-olds. That part of his game was in full view during the team’s 2-1 win over Sporting Kansas City back on Apr. 2, when RSL played without their usual leaders Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, and Jamison Olave.
For Quintero and Ecuador, a player of Plata’s talent translates into someone they can easily fit in a system that benefits elusive and imaginative players like Jefferson Montero. It remains to be seen if Plata gets his chance, but he has definitely earned a look.