Joao Plata is only five-feet-three, but on this night he stood 10-feet tall.
The 19-year-old Ecuadorian was a giant among men Saturday, scoring one goal and setting up another in a 2-1 victory over the visiting Houston Dynamo, marking his first start in a Major League Soccer game in grand style.
The win allowed the Reds to improve their record to 2-3-4, and end a six-game winless streak — their previous victory this season came on March 26.
Prior to Saturday, Plata had been limited to 63 minutes and four substitute appearances in MLS. But he always illuminated TFC's drab play whenever he did see action, including Wednesday's 1-0 win over FC Edmonton in the Canadian Nutrilite championship.
TFC fans called upon coach Aron Winter to give Plata his chance against Houston, and the Dutchman duly obliged. Plata repaid Winter's faith with another man-of-the-match performance, giving the Toronto attack plenty of impetus with his dangerous runs and sublime touch on the ball.
It was Plata’s fearless display on the ball that was the difference on the night for Toronto, and for that the Ecuadorian credited his coach.
"Aron has told me that whenever I am one-on-one, I need to dribble and take on my man, and not to be afraid, and try to make the play. That’s what I tried today," Plata told reporters after the game through a translator.
Although pleased with Plata’s effort, Winter maintained he will not rush him back into the starting line-up.
"You have to be careful with those players, because he’s still young and this is a very tough league," Winter cautioned.
Plata wasn't the only one to earn his first MLS start. Winter rewarded defender Richard Eckersley for his effort in the midweek game against Edmonton by including him in the starting 11 against Houston.
With Alan Gordon sidelined (groin injury) and captain Maicon Santos benched, Alen Stevanovic led the line, playing between Plata and Nick Soolsma, who made his first appearance since the Reds' season opener on March 19.
Eckersley and Soolsma justified their inclusion, as did Julian de Guzman. The Canadian midfielder, still recovering from off-season knee surgery, had his best game as a Red since joining the team in 2008, masterfully quarterbacking the midfield with his steady distribution skills.
Winter heaped praise on de Guzman, who he felt was instrumental in helping Toronto rebound from an embarrassing 3-0 loss in Seattle a week ago.
Saturday was easily Toronto’s most complete performance of the MLS campaign, but Winter warned there is still plenty of work to do and that the Reds’ rebuilding process continues in earnest.
Toronto looked the more purposeful side in the first half, although Houston did well to limit the Reds' chances.
A sweeping TFC move down the left in the 11th minute by Plata and Michael Yourassowsky ended with Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall parrying Guzman's stinging shot over the crossbar.
The breakthrough for the Reds came in the 50th minute, after Soolsma was brought down inside the box by Houston defender André Hainault. While his teammates quickly surround the referee, Plata immediately grabbed the ball, put it on the spot and went on to score a perfect penalty, placing it just under the crossbar.
Plata’s assertive move took great courage, especially for a teenager. Thankfully for TFC, he did not wilt under the pressure.
"I always have confidence in myself. I knew at that moment that I was ready to take the penalty," Plata said.
Toronto should have been awarded a second penalty 11 minutes later when Hall made contact with Plata inside the box. Referee Jorge Gonzalez appeared to point to the spot, but after consulting with his linesman, he inexplicably called a foul on Plata.
The Ecuadorian exacted revenge in the 81st minute, playing a perfect pass for Santos, who had come on as a substitute, to slot it home and give Toronto a two-goal advantage.
Houston made things interesting with three minutes left in regulation when Lovel Palmer scored, capitalizing on a miscue by TFC defender Dicoy Williams.
But TFC repelled several Dynamo attacks in the waning minutes to hold on for the win.
NOTES: Toronto forward Javier Martina and defender Nana Attakora did not dress … Houston forward Brian Ching, the team's all-time leading scorer, did not make the trip to Toronto due to injury … TFC visits FC Dallas next Wednesday before returning home to host the Chicago Fire on May 14.