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The Time is Joao: Plata returns to form to start 2016

Plata is on fire to start 2016 after an injury-ridden 2015.

Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

March is a time for dancing, and there is no one Real Salt Lake would rather see busting a move than Joao Plata. We were tragically robbed of that privilege last year for a large chunk of the season due to injury, and even when he was healthy Plata struggled to make much of an impact. This year however, he has come out of the gate firing, and looks primed for a big year. Let the madness begin.

First, let’s take a walk down memory lane and look at how the Ecuadorian forward got here. Joao Plata arrived via a trade with Toronto in the offseason between the 2012 and 2013 seasons. We received a lovable, travel size bag of magic tricks named Joao, and Toronto received what mlssoccer.com writer Tyler Gray referred to as "some Taco Bell Sauce packets and a 20% coupon to Bed, Bath and Beyond".

But really, those sauce packets may have been more valuable than the 2nd round pick in the 2015 superdraft that Toronto actually received in exchange for Plata. That pick turned into Edwin Rivas, who was released from Toronto II after one uneventful season. It’s safe to say Real Salt Lake got the better deal.

Plata contributed right out of the gate in 2013, notching 4 goals and setting up 8 more. He was a natural fit in RSL’s possession oriented attack, using his quickness and technical abilities to set up and finish goals like this:

Expectations were high for the diminutive striker in 2014 and he delivered, more than tripling his goal scoring to finish with 13. He got his money in the offseason, but also picked up that injury and things never really got going in 2015.

The injury was the largest factor in Plata’s down year, but the switch to the 4-3-3 made it more difficult for the Ecuadorian to find a rhythm. Most of Plata’s success had come from playing the second forward in Real’s classic 4-4-2 diamond, but the formation shift pushed him out wide and changed the way he had to play.

Starting runs from different spots can make a huge difference for a player, just look how Ignacio Piatti has exploded for Montreal since being moved out left. Joao Plata is quick and has speed, but he is not a traditional wide man. He is at his best when combining through the middle, like in the earlier goal. Last season, Plata didn’t get the looks inside that he was used to, and thus struggled with rhythm.

The offseason makeover across the front line will be huge for Plata and the 4-3-3. Yura Movsisyan is much more mobile than Saborio ever considered being, and that dynamic play allows Plata to come centrally and connect more often. In the opener against Orlando, Plata actually featured more centrally than the Russian striker.

The other addition that will benefit Plata is a full season with "Burrito" Martinez on the opposite side. In the Orlando game Morales and Martinez connected more passes than any other duo. Last week against Seattle, Martinez was involved in the top three combinations for RSL. Two weeks ago I said "With Burrito Martinez pulling defenses to the right side of the pitch, expect Plata to convert plenty of back post chances this season." Let’s take a look at Plata’s run of play goal against Orlando.

That’s an amazing piece of skill by Martinez, but also look at the forward alignment when Tony Beltran serves that ball into the box. Plata’s CCL goal against Tigres was a similar play, where Martinez received the ball a little deeper, and Movsisyan and Plata shifted to more of a two forward look.

When Martinez pulls wide, it allows Plata to once more pinch in on the weak side in that second forward role. These won’t be the last goals will see from Plata this season.

Something I did not anticipate is the amount of free kicks Plata would be taking, and how dangerous he would be from them. First, he took the penalty against Orlando SC after Morales' miss in the CCL. Then, against Portland we saw this golazo from the free kick. The announcers said Javy Morales' name approximately 32 times (give or take) in the lead up to that set piece, but I expect after that rip, Plata will start getting a fair share of the dead ball chances. In addition to that, Plata has two assists off of free kicks on the season, adding another dimension that opposing teams will need to plan for.

The Real Salt Lake attack will be much more versatile and dynamic this season, allowing the best players to get to their best spots and get work done. We're already beginning to see what this means for Plata and his rise in the MLS. If Plata can avoid the injury bug, it looks like RSL fans will be dancing well after the NCAA tournament ends.