Herriman • Just a few months ago, Real Salt Lake forward Joao Plata’s season wasn’t going according to plan. His playing time was inconsistent. His body was ailing. Trade rumors swirled.
It got to the point where forward Luis Silva, who has known Plata since their time playing together on Toronto FC, gave his best friend on the team some advice. He told Plata not to let his struggles get to his head or affect his game. That in soccer, one game can make all your misfortunes turn 180 degrees.
That pep talk must have worked. Since mid-July, Plata has started 10 of his last 12 games and scored five of his eight total goals.
“I think he’s done well since,” Saucedo said Thursday. “You can see it on the field. He’s done really well. He’s focused, he’s back in it and he’s just trying to win and help out the team to get to the playoffs.”
Plata, 26, came to RSL via trade from Toronto in 2013. His two best statistical seasons came in 2014 and 2016, where he scored 13 and nine goals, respectively. He also contributed six and 12 assists in those respective years.
This season, Plata’s production has dipped a bit. With three games left in the regular season, his eight goals are third most among his teammates, and his seven assists are second. But those numbers are not up to par with Plata’s own expectations.
“My personal goal is always trying to be the top scorer on the team — the top scorer in the league,” Plata said Tuesday. “I’m a forward. I have to score. I have to assist my teammates.”
Plata has made a point to assist his teammates in other ways — not just with scoring. He has been a professional since he was 17, when he played in his native Ecuador. In the early years of his career, he approached his veteran teammates, who in turn took the time to mentor him.
With the slew of young faces on RSL’s roster this season, Plata is trying to pay it forward.
“There’s a lot of guys that look up to him,” Silva said.
One of them is 23-year-old forward Sebastian Saucedo. Plata said that while he makes an effort to talk with all his teammates, he gives advice to Saucedo “every day or every game.”
The year Saucedo, from Park City, signed with RSL was the same year Plata scored 13 goals. Saucedo recalled looking up to Plata because he had “special qualities.”
Although Plata and Saucedo play the same position and are theoretically competing for minutes on the field, Saucedo has always felt supported by Plata, he said.
“It’s a good thing to know that I’m not just battling someone just to battle and for him to think, ‘You know what, this little young guy is going to take my spot,’” Saucedo said. “He’s also super caring when I do start. … He wasn’t that type of player where he was negative about any situation. He was super happy when I scored my goals.”
Connecting with and mentoring his young teammates is something the coaching staff wants Plata to do. RSL coach Mike Petke said he spoke with Plata one on one on Tuesday to discuss how he can do just that.
“I think Plata has a lot to offer,” said Petke, adding that Plata has been visibly more communicative with certain players since their conversation. “I think Joao only has room to go up. That’s a credit to him because he’s had a very good season.”
Several RSL players said Plata has been a positive presence in the locker room. He often makes jokes to lighten the mood during training sessions. Silva said Plata is “always happy,” both on and off the field.
“No team, I don’t think, wins without having a good, strong locker room,” midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. “So Joao being a big part of this — when he’s happy and he’s himself, then the locker room’s stronger. It’s great to have Joao around.”
Plata has one year left on his contract after this season. Since day one with the RSL five years ago, he said, he has felt welcomed by his teammates and the community in Salt Lake City. He acknowledged that he does not know what the future holds, but currently likes where he is.
“I think RSL is part of my family,” Plata said. “For now, I’m happy being here.”
PORTLAND TIMBERS AT REAL SALT LAKE
At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah
Kickoff » Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
TV » KMYU
Radio » 700 AM
Records » RSL 13-11-7 (sixth in Western Conference, 46 points), Portland 13-9-9 (fourth in West, 48 points)
About Portland » The Timbers are coming off a 1-1 draw to Sporting Kansas City. … Portland has won or tied seven of its last nine games, but has lost three of its last four road games. ... Diego Valeri leads the Timbers in both goals and assists (10).
About RSL » Coming off a 1-1 draw to Sporting Kansas City. … Has won or tied seven of its last nine games. … Albert Rusnák leads the team with 10 goals, but he has not scored in the last three games. … They play Portland twice in the final three games of the regular season — once at home, once on the road. ... Runsák, Jefferson Savarino and Shawn Barry on Friday were all called up to their respective national teams — Slovakia, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.