Joao Plata's season has been not just good, but great. In his fourth MLS season to date, Plata has taken himself from a young prospect at a perennially struggling Toronto FC to a key cog in Real Salt Lake's machinations.
It's been a remarkable rise for the 22-year-old, who is certain to feature high up the list in MLS's 24-under-24, which starts today. In 22 games, he's scored 13 goals (0.6 per game) and penned five assists. As a point of contrast, Alvaro Saborio's last full season — 2012 — saw him score 17 goals in 31 games (0.55 per game).
It's clear that Plata is very good, but it's about a lot more than just his goalscoring rate, as important as that may be. He's made himself invaluable in build-up-play, always being involved and active. He's been great with both the final pass and the final shot, and that's been a particularly exciting feature of his play.
Often times he has been cited as outperforming his expected goalscoring rate — a metric that is a little confounding at times. (In short, expected goals is a measure of shots and shot location. The hypothesis is that players tend toward a goalscoring mean from different shot areas, and that Joao Plata has exceeded it. Here, read more.)
Ned Grabavoy, after Friday's 5-1 win over Colorado Rapids, called Plata RSL's best player.
"He's our best player. He is. He is our best soccer player," Grabavoy said in post-match interviews. "So, I think everyone has a different view on what that would mean but he is our best soccer player. I don't know what else I could say."
Grabavoy might just be right about that. But what could he be talking about? What might his view on what makes the best player be? Let's ponder the possibilities for a moment.
Efficiency and quality of movement: Plata understands where he should be in attack and has increasingly understood where to be in defense. But more important than that is that he understands the types of movement that take him into the most dangerous positions.or draw defenders away from other dangerous areas.
Pass quality and precision: Plata has averaged 84 percent passing accuracy this season, which puts him around what Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman average (both hit 83 percent.) He attempts significantly fewer than both, though, which is expected as a forward. Regardless, his passing is considerably better than most forwards, putting him more in the range of attacking midfielders in that regard. This certainly has roots in his history as an attacking midfielder, rendering him one of the more interesting hybrids in MLS.
First-touch and control: Plata is dispossessed with about 4 percent of his touches, which puts him in a reasonable spot around the other forwards. But those rarely come because of a loose touch — it's more because he's dribbled into a difficult area. (By contrast, Javier Morales is dispossessed with about 3 percent, Ned Grabavoy with about 2 percent, Olmes Garcia with about 2.5 percent.)
Shot accuracy and selection: This is what stands out about Plata most. 62.5 percent of Plata's shots are on target (30/48), which is tremendous. Nobody else even breaks 50 percent. If that doesn't say something about his shot selection, nothing will. (Beckerman, for reference, has 48 percent shooting accuracy, which is a vast improvement over the course of his career.)
What else might it be? Personality, teamwork, likability, involvement in play — there's a lot there. But it's clear that even if Joao Plata's not the best player at Real Salt Lake, Grabavoy is right to put him in that discussion, because the season he's having is just remarkable.