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Toronto FC 2011 Top 40 Countdown: Number 3 - Joao Plata

Plata begs to differ with his lowly #3 ranking.
Plata begs to differ with his lowly #3 ranking.

He was the heart and soul of the team this year, as enthusiastic as he was skillful, a breath of fresh air at a particularly grim time for the club, number 3 in the Toronto FC Top 40 Countdown is Joao Plata.

Average Ranking: 3.182
Highest Ranking: 1
Lowest Ranking: 6

Duncan: 3. After falling all the way to the 3rd round of the 2011 Superdraft, despite being one of the best players at the pre draft combine, the obvious question going into the season was if Plata was too small for MLS. Would his skill be enough to survive in a physical league against players much taller and bigger than him. At first it seemed like it might not, in the first few games of the season he made some sub appearances, and though you could see the potential, he also struggled to make an impact. As much as it pained me to say it, I thought his best chance to survive was going to be by quickly learning how to dive, in order to draw fouls and cards and get the space he needed.

Despite conventional wisdom that he'd be better as an impact sub when defenders are tired, it was when he got into the starting lineup that he started to stand out. First up it was in the two games against Edmonton, when he looked dangerous from both sides of the pitch, and set up 3 of the 4 goals TFC scored over the two legs. That got him the start against Houston where he put in another man of the match performance, scoring a penalty and setting up the second goal for Maicon Santos. The next week he did the same thing against Chicago, setting up Santos after opening the scoring himself, this time from outside the box after cutting inside from the wing on to his right foot.

Of course, if you've been following this series, you'll know my opinion of tricky wingers; inconsistent and not to be trusted, and it was no different with Plata as after those good games, he had a fairly quiet month and a half or so. Other teams paid him a bit more attention to him, and learnt that if you can keep him on the outside on his weaker left foot, he'll generally be less effective. He seemed to take a while to adapt and was often frustrating and ineffective. To be expected with a winger, but the lows can be tolerated as long as the highs are high enough and often enough, and unlike Javier Martina, Plata more than qualified on both counts.

From then on, he seemed to save his best for the cup competitions. A goal and assist against Vancouver sealed the Voyageurs Cup MVP award, and a two goal substitute appearance saved a previously stumbling game against Real Esteli at home. Then of course there was his magnificent performance in the Biggest Game Ever against Dallas, an assist followed by two very well taken goals to seal the game. Go ahead, treat yourself and click play, I'll wait.

Anyone else feeling a bit emotional after that? Just me? Ok. Though I often cursed his lack of left foot and the chances that he missed out on because of that, which the first 20 minutes or so of that game were a good example of, it's a good thing really, as if he could play with his left like he plays with his right, size be damned he'd be in a much better league than MLS. Anyway, if there's any player where the saying that stats don't tell the whole story rings true, it's with Plata, the huge impact he had on the club this year was just as much down to his personality as his play on the field.

Right from the start, the supporters loved Plata. Whether due to his size, the ever present smile, his disarmingly likeable twitter account, or a combination of the above and more, fans were willing him to do well. It'd been a long and depressing off season and a disappointing start to the season, rounded off by the slow and painful denouement of the De Rosario saga. Times were grim in TFC land, and we all needed something to lift the gloom. Thankfully with those games against Edmonton, Houston and Chicago, he gave us all something to look forward to, a genuinely exciting, edge of your seat kind of player, combined with a joie de vivre and enthusiasm that you couldn't help but root for. It's all very poetically summed up in this chunk of a marvellous paean to Plata over at Partially Obstructed View.

His small stature and big heart, his passion – a highly-prized asset in Toronto - and his showmanship lifted the docile crowd, stirring them from their apathetic slumber, reminding them of what they were there for.
The malaise they had been feeling vanished in the sunshine of his joy for the game, his willingness to try something, to make mistakes, get knocked over, but come right back and have another go

What really sealed it for me was after that Houston game, he was named the man of the match and held back to receive the trophy. While most players politely accept it and pose for the obligatory sponsor photo, Plata seemed to treat it like a real prize and hoisted it up to all 4 corners of the stadium. Absolutely charming.

It wasn't just the fans either, his teammates seemed to love him as well. When he first broke into the team, anyone asked about Plata seemed to break into a grin. His dancing with Maicon Santos were his more well known celebrations, but I preferred what happened after he scored the penalty for his first goal. After running to the South East corner, the team caught up to him and mobbed him, with Alen Stevanovic (I think) picking him up in a bearhug. I don't want to say mascot, that seems a bit disrespectful, but there was a very affectionate little brother kind of vibe to it all. He quickly provided the heart and soul of the club, at a time when it really needed one.

Of course the big isssue hanging over all of this is that he was only here on loan, and thus there's still negotiating to be done before it's confirmed he'll be back next year. The club isn't confirming anything until it's done, but the latest reports suggested a deal was being worked out to bring him back that would see his rights owned 50% by TFC and 50% by his current Ecuadorian club LDU Quito, a confusing situation that's probably necessary to be affordable under the salary cap/allocation money that TFC has available. However they have to figure it out, hopefully management is doing all they can to bring him back next year.

Dave: 1. His resume speaks for itself this season. Seemed to be the biggest player in all the biggest games despite being so small in stature. Even with the time he missed due to injury he finds himself near the top of the list because of the big goals that he scored. Joao Plata will long be remembered as the hero of the win at FC Dallas which saw TFC advance in the CCL but he should also be remembered for scoring one and assisting on the other in the second leg of the Voyageurs Cup to get TFC into the CCL and then scoring another brace in the first leg of the qualifier against Real Esteli. In what are arguably TFC's three biggest wins of the season (Columbus aside) he was the teams best player.

Keaton: 3. Another player that many are so excited about. TFC may have had a horrible year(excluding CCL), but they certainly have a number of fan favourites. Plata is still only 19, and I hope to the Great God above that TFC can sign this guy and have him in Toronto for years to come.

Kristin: Biggest steal in the draft, ever. Still needs a left foot though.

Michelle: He scored goals and is fast. What's not to love.

James: Still haven't figured out if he exists or was just a collective delusion created by a mass groupthink brought on by the desperation of TFC fans. Either way, a pleasure to watch, saved the season when things were dark, break the bank to get him, within reason of course.

JC_Plante: What more can be said. We pressured to get him on draft day and were shocked to see him drop. What a gem, and clearly size doesn't matter. He's so young he can only improve and learn to trust his teammates more

The Yorkies: Only shortcoming (cough) is his youth

Jimmy Stone: Had brilliant moments this season, adds much needed pace to the team.

Canadian Texan: Awesome acquisition. Especially at that point of the draft

Devon Taylor: My player of the year. A constant spark on offense, providing a threat down the left wing. Some crucial CCL goals. And only 19 years old.

Ignirtoq: What can be said about Plata that hasn't been gushed about him already? Nothing. Brilliant season.

Blindfolded Tank Driver: A little sparkplug that could. Even with only one foot.

Number 4: Richard Eckersley
Number 2: Danny Koevermans

Full Top 40 so far