By TYLER GRAY
SANDY, Utah. – Joao Plata captured lightning in a bottle twice in a row and led Real Salt Lake to the top spot in the West.
Real Salt Lake squared off against the Seattle Sounders in front of a capacity crowd at Rio Tinto Stadium Saturday afternoon and fought to a 2-1 victory. An own goal and a header from Joao Plata were enough to overcome a Chad Barrett strike in the 72nd minute.
Plata nearly broke open the floodgates in just the second minute but after dribbling through a few Seattle defenders, his shot from the top of the box was saved by Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei. In fact, Plata was close on a number of occasions throughout the first period but was unlucky to put one away.
It only took eight minutes into the second period, however, for the shortest player in Major League Soccer to put his stamp on the match.
RSL earned a free kick on the edge of Seattle’s box in the 53rd minute. Midfielder Luke Mulholland served a ball up to the back post where Plata was lurking. The 5-foot-2 forward headed the ball firmly into the back of the net to give RSL the opening goal.
“I couldn’t believe it was him again,” Beckerman said. “He can score goals from any way and he has shown that this year. Left foot, right foot, and now with his head. He’s a special player. We’ve been leaning on him for goals this year and we’re going to continue to lean on him. I think he’s got a couple more in him, with his head or with his feet, it doesn’t matter. He’ll find a way to get it in.”
Wingert was quick to point out that he knew Plata had this in him the whole time.
“I told my dad this last year; [Plata] only had a few goals, and I said, I’m telling you – this guy is a finisher,” Wingert said. “We see him at practice every day and of course there is a difference between finishing in games and finishing in practice, but you can see how he strikes the ball, so to be honest it’s not a huge surprise to me.”
Plata was integral in RSL’s second goal as well, making the interception that keyed RSL’s attack.
After collecting the ball, Plata played the ball towards the top of the box to midfielder Luis Gil. Playing at the top of the diamond in Morales’ absence, Gil played Mulholland in who appeared to get a toe to the ball to put it into the back of the net, although the score was classified as an own goal for the Sounders.
“It’s not just the goal scoring, which of course is the name of the game, but [Plata] is an animal of a competitor,” Wingert again said. “I mean, I just love the way he competes. Like everything, his attitude. He’s on fire just as soon as we get into the huddle – he’s even like that with ping pong. But he’s an absolute monster. I mean he’s scoring on headers now.”
Seattle made things interesting in the 72nd minute when forward Chad Barrett was able to clean up a misplayed clearance from RSL’s defense making it 2-1, but it wasn’t enough as RSL held on for the win, stretching their unbeaten streak to six matches.
“These game really are six-pointers the rest of the way,” RSL head coach Jeff Cassar said. “You can really start putting some distance from other teams. Right now, we are six points ahead of Dallas – that’s an important game. It’s a massive game. There are less and less available games to play. I think guys are starting to smell it, and feel it.”
With the win, RSL take sole possession of first place in the Western Conference for the time being. They next head to face FC Dallas in another pivotal Western Conference clash.