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Should RSL trade Joao Plata? It’s about more than just goals

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The winger is rumored to be in the shop window.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at San Jose Earthquakes Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake winger Joao Plata has been said to be on the move for the last week or so. It’s one of those persistent rumors that has everyone more or less up-in-arms, and there’s a limited time frame for it to come to fruition: August 8.

That’s just six days away, and we still have no further feeling on if the player will be moving clubs in this transfer window.

The popular take right now is that Plata is one of the league’s best players, and RSL would be crazy to be rid of him. That’s largely based on an assessment of goals scored per 96 minutes played — it’s a number that’s sitting around 0.69 Gp96, which looks like some weird chemical formula but isn’t really.

We don’t need to go too in-depth into that number, but I do want to talk about that.

Is Joao Plata as prolific as that number would have you believe?

I actually don’t think so. Plata is, for me, a streaky goalscorer. He’s a good one, and I don’t want to ignore that fact, but I do think describing him as an elite goalscorer in MLS might be misguided.

Before the most recent three games, Plata was sitting at a still-very-good 0.433 Gp96, which is still quite something for a winger. But before his most recent two-goal game, it had been nearly three months since he had last scored. If you go back through his career, you see similar sorts of gaps, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. As a result, tracking his impact in that way will vary widely during the course of the season.

You’ll also note that he has about one two-goal game per season, so we also shouldn’t overstate the impact that has on his goalscoring records.

Let’s look at that same rate over his Real Salt Lake career.

  • 2018: 0.69 Gp96
  • 2017: 0.30 Gp96
  • 2016: 0.35 Gp96
  • 2015: 0.35 Gp96
  • 2014: 0.27 Gp96
  • 2013: 0.63 Gp96

This is an interesting thing to me. This is easily his best season since 2013 in that regard, but he’s also started less than half the matches in which he’s been available. How much is that skewing considerations? I don’t know, but it’s something to think about.

Obviously, most of those absences have been down to injury. The article linked above references his attitude issues, but that’s something we know largely from last year, not this year. I don’t think that’s playing into things here.

What we have on our hands is a winger who will score roughly once in every three games, or roughly twice in every three games, depending on the timeframe in which you’re examining his impact. Maybe he’d keep scoring at that clip if we kept him, but I don’t think we have a guarantee there.

Can RSL do better in that position for the money?

Unless we sign a truly top-tier winger to replace Plata, I actually don’t think we can do better than this with the financial impact Plata has on the team. He’s a player we could pay down with targeted allocation money, and he has a measurable goalscoring impact on the team. Even a goal every three games is a good rate for a winger in this league.

So no, I don’t think we could improve for this money unless we get really, really lucky. Sebastian Saucedo isn’t going to score those goals at this point in his career, and while he might have that potential, he’s clearly not there yet.

Why would RSL consider trading Plata?

I actually think this is more clear-cut than people have given it credit, so let’s talk about it.

I don’t think Plata is the best fit tactically for what Mike Petke is trying to do. He’s an attack-minded winger at heart — or maybe a second striker, but that’s a question for another day — and he’s being asked to come back and defend consistently. That’s not an unusual thing for a winger to be asked to do these days, but it’s not something that truly fits Plata’s game.

Additionally, the player himself might be ready for a move, and we shouldn’t ignore that fact, either. We can never ignore the impact that has on a player, and if he wants a move, he has the power to make a move happen. It’s sort of the way soccer goes these days, and let’s not ignore that.

One more thing to consider — and this comes up in the American Soccer Analysis piece — is that we might be looking to get something rather than nothing for Plata, should he walk at the end of his contract. I don’t know when that is, but it’s a salient point that something might be happening behind-the-scenes that we don’t have any knowledge of.

Finally, there remains a possibility that Plata is worth more in trade impact on the team should he leave than he is should he stay. It might be the case that we can land a striker for him, and if that’s what it takes, maybe that’s what we need. Or it could certainly be the case that we could bring in a boatload of TAM to trade. Really, I think the only way I see a trade as worth it is if we can bring in a forward to actually play up top for this team, because we’ve gone way too long without having one play for us.

So, should they trade him?

I’m actually split on this. I think he makes a good impact on the team, and his goalscoring impact shouldn’t be ignored, but we also shouldn’t overstate it. If we can trade him for the right assets, I think it’s worth it, and I don’t think it’s out of this world to think we could do that.

If we trade Plata just for allocation money or something similar and don’t make a play at signing a forward with it, it’ll be a mistake. After all, that’s our biggest need, and if we don’t fill it, we’ll find ourselves continuing to hurt.