SANDY, Utah (AP) – Every time Joao Plata touched the ball, he found a way to make a special play materialize for Real Salt Lake.
Plata's energy on defense was infectious. His passing proved equally deadly. The Portland Timbers could do little to stop him or the rest of the RSL starters from making it a long night.
Plata scored once and assisted on goals by Javier Morales and Luis Gil to lead Salt Lake to a 4-2 win over Portland on Friday night. Alvaro Saborio added the other goal for RSL (14-8-6), which notched its second victory over Portland this month.
Plata's total effort on both ends of the field did not go unnoticed by RSL coach Jason Kreis.
''He's been an important player for us just with assists and goals,'' Kreis said. ''The one area we were always a little doubtful on in the first few months of the season was how much he was going to be willing to work for us when we didn't have the ball. Tonight, I saw an effort I rarely see with forwards. The amount of defensive work he was putting in was second to none and absolutely critical to the success of this team.''
Plata only worries about focusing on one thing when he gets on the field - doing whatever he can to help the team succeed. It doesn't matter if it comes in the form of goals, assists or making plays away from the ball.
He just wants to play the role he needs to play in keeping RSL atop the MLS Conference.
''For me, the most important thing is that the team wins,'' Plata said through a translator. ''I always want to be a part of winning for the team and help us be successful.''
Darlington Nagbe and Sal Zizzo each scored for the Timbers (9-5-12), who played a man down the entire second half after Ben Zemanski was sent off with a red card just before halftime.
Portland had no answer for Salt Lake's precision passing early in the first half. RSL showed patience in working the ball into the attacking third and made the Timbers pay for it with a pair of early goals.
Gil got Salt Lake on the board in the 9th minute. A series of four passes culminated with Plata playing the ball off his back heel to Gil inside the 18 yard box. Gil put the perfect finishing touch on the sequence when he threaded the ball past Timbers goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts and inside the left post.
RSL extended its lead to 2-0 in the 15th on a goal from Plata. Ned Grabavoy fed him a pass into the 18 and Plata attacked Andrew Jean-Baptiste. He drew him out on the left side and fired from an angle as he got around Jean-Baptiste on the turn. Plata sent the ball across the goal face and bounced off the right post for the score.
''That's our game,'' RSL midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. ''That's what we want to do. When we're successful, that's what we do. That's how we score goals. It's not an easy thing, but we're capable of doing it.''
Portland pulled a goal back in the 31st minute. Darlington Nagbe faked laying off the ball to a teammate and instead blasted the ball from distance to make it 2-1.
The Timbers' comeback hopes dimmed just before halftime when midfielder Zemanski was ejected in stoppage time. Zemanski was shown a red card following a dangerous tackle on Grabavoy when the two players went for a 50/50 ball.
''We had just scored a goal and it happens right at the end of the first half,'' Portland defender Raushwan McKenzie said. ''We get that the red card at the end of the first half. We're chasing the game and we're down a goal. Against a good team, it's going to be hard to score another goal - two if you want to win.''
His ejection left Portland a man down the entire second half. RSL capitalized on the man advantage right away.
Morales scored off a corner kick sent in by Plata with an incredible shot in the 55th minute. He sent the ball over his head with a bicycle kick, bouncing it off the right post and into the net to make it 3-1.
Saborio added an insurance goal when he headed home a free kick from Morales in the 67th minute.
Portland cut into the lead again with Zizzo's goal in the 78th. Jose Adolfo Valencia sent a hard shot at RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando near the right post. Rimando blocked it with his glove, but the ball bounced out to Zizzo and he put home the rebound.