A little over a month after Mike Petke took over as the new Real Salt Lake head coach, RSL winger Joao Plata sat in a team video session and heard one of his teammates starting a side conversation.
Plata turned around and snapped at him.
“I remember almost getting tongue-tied during the meeting when I heard that because I was just so caught off guard that it was Joao that was doing that,” Petke said.
Petke said there was no way Plata would have reacted like that three weeks earlier. The coaches met after the video session and all agreed something special had happened: They had Plata on board.
During a season in which he has reinvented himself, Plata was rewarded this week with a call-up to the Ecuador national team. The 25-year-old winger, who has four caps with Ecuador’s senior team, was last selected back in October 2014 for friendlies against the United States and El Salvador. He is scheduled to join the national team after RSL’s match at L.A. Saturday.
Plata declined a request for an interview on the subject, but he did tweet out an enthusiastic response about the call-up and the opportunity to “continue working on what has just begun.”
“I ran into him the other day in the hallway when he found out about the news,” RSL assistant coach Freddy Juarez said. “He’s excited, and we all agree he deserves it. The last few months we’ve all see a change in the team, and part of the reason is there’s been a change in Plata as well.”
Returning to the national team has been an objective Plata and Petke have talked about for much of the season.
“We didn’t have a plan for him to make the national team, we had a plan for him to improve as a player both mentally, physically, tactically,” Petke said.
Petke and Plata’s relationship was not always so collaborative. They butted heads when Petke took over, as Plata adjusted to the change in leadership.
At the beginning of May, Plata showed up late to a training session due to a missed flight. He was not allowed to join practice and instead ran on the side of the field.
“I won’t accept that,” Petke told The Tribune at the time. “The players know that. I don’t know how it’s been in the past. I don’t care how it’s been in the past. Accountability and being on time … being on time is not a rule, it’s a given.”
So when Plata told his teammate to quiet down in a video session not long after, Petke was stunned. As was the rest of the coaching staff.
“The Joao that started the season is a totally different Joao that we have now,” assistant coach Tyrone Marshall said, “and that’s the Joao you want: the guy who comes in, he’s early, he gets into the meeting, he doesn’t come off the field and not want to shake your hand. He’s one of the guys who comes of the field and he’s cheering on the bench, he’s encouraging guys. And that’s what you want from a young guy. Those are leadership qualities.”
Plata didn’t score a goal for the first two and half months of league play, but starting with RSL’s 1-0 win against Philadelphia on May 27, he has been on a tear.
Plata now leads the team in goals (seven), tied with Albert Rusnák, Jefferson Savarino and Yura Movsisyan. He has also contributed five assists.
The rhythm Plata has developed with the rest of the attacking four has been integral in Real Salt Lake’s climb out of the cellar and into contention for a playoff berth. In RSL’s past five matches it averaged 2.8 goals per game, thanks to its cohesive attack.
In one of those matches, a 4-1 home victory over Colorado on Aug. 26, Petke replaced Plata with Brooks Lennon in the 73rd minute. Plata had scored RSL’s first goal of the match, a well-struck ball that beat the goalkeeper to the front post.
When Plata came off, Petke hugged him and patted him on the back.
“If I would’ve taken Plata out my first couple of games in the time I took him out tonight, we probably would’ve had a fistfight,” Petke said after the game. “But he was all smiles now because it’s about the team, and he has, along with everybody else, bought into that.”
Real Salt Lake at LA Galaxy
At StubHub Center, Carson, Calif.
Kickoff » 8:30 p.m.
TV » KMYU
Radio » 700 AM
Records » RSL 12-14-5, LA 7-17-7
Last meeting » RSL won 6-2 (July 4, at StubHub Center)
About the Galaxy » The Galaxy were eliminated from playoff contention Wednesday. … LA is 10-6-1 at home against RSL all-time. …Romain Alessandrini (11 goals, 10 assists) is one of three players in MLS to reach double digit goals and assists this season. … Robbie Rogers (ankle), Sebastian Lletget (foot), Baggio Husidic (leg), Pele van Anholt (torn ACL) and Daniel Steres (back) are sidlelined for the match due to injury. … Defender Bradley Diallo (hamstring) is questionable for the match.
About RSL » RSL enters the match above the red line, at fifth in the Western Conference. … RSL is unbeaten in 10 of its past 12 matches. … RSL is 4-10-1 on the road this season. … Luis Silva (groin) and Demar Phillips (hamstring) practiced this week but are still questionable for the match. … RSL’s Jordan Allen, Omar Holness and Chad Barrett remain out (knee surgeries). … Ricardo Velazco (ankle surgery) remains out with an injury and suspended due to ongoing court proceedings.