Portland, Ore. • Even in sunny Southern California, Real Salt Lake was left searching for a bright spot last weekend.
But in a 4-2 beatdown at the hands of the L.A. Galaxy, a second-half goal from RSL striker Joao Plata, his second in league play this season, stood out as a moment of excellence that night.
A few weeks back, Real coach Jason Kreis said he'd been hesitant to move Plata, the diminutive Ecuadorian, into his team's starting lineup for fear of losing the spark Plata brought coming off the bench. Nevertheless, Kreis has started the striker in three straight games with his inclusion in Wednesday night's starting 11.
"I think the players continue to make the choices, really," Kreis said this week. "We always say the choices are difficult and they are, because the differences are miniscule. But every once in a while, a player performs their way into forcing your hand, and I think Plata has done that."
The 21-year-old Plata has surprised many with his play, scoring two goals and assisting six times so far this year, but Kreis does not consider himself among those not expecting it.
"Plata popped out of nowhere for a lot of people except the coaching staff. We've been watching him actually for the past several years," said Kreis, who said he began monitoring Plata three years ago at the MLS combine. "We've seen sparks of what he's capable of. I don't think he was ever a consistent player with Toronto, and he's certainly working toward much more consistency with us. It's taken him a long time to realize how much more is expected of him here and to buy into that. Since he's done that, we've seen success on the field because he's a talented player no doubt."
No rush on Wanderer
Former Bolton Wanderer Ricardo Gardner remains on trial with RSL, but don't expect a decision on him right away.
The 34-year-old is coming off a knee surgery, and RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey said the team wants to see him regain his fitness before evaluating him fully. Salt Lake has a reserve game, Aug. 31 at home against the Timbers, which could be the team's best look at Gardner.
After starting 12 straight matches to start the year, defender Chris Schuler hasn't seen the field since mid-May, as he works his way back from a foot injury.
But Kreis said that could change soon.
"[He's] very, very close," Kreis said. "I thought he had a particularly strong training session [Tuesday]. He's just entering his third week of full training. ... Three to four weeks is when we'd expect someone to start getting full soccer fitness."