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Should RSL sell Joao Plata?

The 25-year-old might be a target, but that doesn’t mean RSL should just jump at the option.

MLS: New York City FC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

If rumors are to believed — and they usually aren’t — Joao Plata is a target for Liga MX side Monarcas Morelia. It’s easy to see why. He’s young, talented, and can be a lethal goalscorer when he gets going.

But a bigger question comes down the pipeline, and it’s one we can ask ourselves without much regard to this particular rumor: Should Real Salt Lake sell Joao Plata? Let’s limit that further — should Real Salt Lake sell Joao Plata in the next year?

I think you can easily make a case on either side, so let’s talk about it.

Why RSL should sell

As a young attacking player, Plata’s best years are ahead of him. Because of that, the promise his price provides is likely to bump his price higher than it will ever actually end up. Teams will pay through the nose for a player that might later fetch them a higher price with the hope that they can push through his development.

A player like Plata certainly has a ceiling, but we haven’t yet established what that ceiling is. Could he fetch a $5 million transfer fee like Fabian Castillo? Perhaps, but he’s also less physically imposing than Castillo, and that will cause teams to shy away, even if the age of the giant striker has rather come to a close. There’s still that hesitation.

Of course, a lot of this depends on the offer on hand. If an offer for Joao Plata exceeds the club’s valuation — and they certainly have one, and I’m sure Craig Waibel would admit readily to that — then it should be a no-brainer. That’s a big ‘if’.

Finally, the biggest argument to sell would be if Plata himself has decided he wants to leave. There’s not really much coming back from that for most players.

Why RSL shouldn’t sell

Joao Plata is not at his peak. It doesn’t get much simpler than that, but let’s reason through this. If Morelia want to buy 25-year-old Joao Plata, they would almost certainly have an eye toward selling him down the line if he continues to improve, maybe in three years or so — selling at a peaking age of 28. They might also be looking at the current state of things at Real Salt Lake and seeing an opportunity, but the first proposition has to be there for it to make any sense for them.

In Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski talk about why clubs should buy players in their early 20s, and that’s a rule you’ll see followed by successful teams. Perhaps that means Real Salt Lake should keep their players in their early 20s — or, maybe it means that they should be looking to sell. Regardless, they’d be financially better served by waiting — provided Plata becomes a productive member of the team — than by selling him now.

But MLS makes all of this difficult. Kuper and Szymanski argue that teams should sign replacements at least six months ahead of time; this works to an extent, but a salary-capped league means it’s hard to bring in those players consistently. In this case, maybe that’s what Jefferson Savarino offers, but maybe that’s just as much about Brooks Lennon as it is Joao Plata.

If Savarino is here as Plata’s long-term replacement — and I’d argue it’s more than that, but that could be one of the reasons — then we might be best served by waiting until he’s got his feet under him and we start to see consistent performances from him that we should sell. That might be a year from now, but it gives us the best chance to replace from within seamlessly.

The entire argument about keeping Plata hinges on two things, though. First, he must really want to be here. He’s a player for whom motivation seems to be a big factor in his performances. Second, he must be productive. If he can’t start making more of a difference in the team, then we should consider accepting an offer or changing our internal valuation. There’s plenty of time for that yet, given RSL coach Mike Petke is still very much iterating on his tactics. Once he gets things right, then we can look toward Plata and ask the tricky question of him.