In the second leg of the Concacaf Champions League Final last May, João Paulo suffered a torn ACL in the first half, sidelining him for the remainder of 2022. On Sunday night in the 2023 MLS season-opener, JP was substituted in the 80th minute and exited on the goal line, making the long walk to the Sounders’ bench to a sea of Rave Green supporters giving him a standing ovation.
“It felt good, especially after a long time away,” said João Paulo of his return to Lumen Field nearly 10 months later. “It’s always tough to be out with any injury especially when it’s a long one…I’m around 100%, I’d say I’m very close. So, I’d expect in the next few games to play 90 minutes.”
The Sounders missed its venerable field general last year, as the club missed the postseason for the first time in its 14-year MLS history. The Brazilian was a 2021 MLS MVP finalist and Best XI selection for a reason, and he reminded everyone on Sunday just how influential he can be.
João Paulo completed nearly 80% of his passes, had one key pass and won 11 duels. The Sounders completely dominated the middle of the park, and Colorado was toothless trying to attack through the heart of Seattle’s defense because of the holes he filled.
“He’s got good range of passes, good vision, his leadership on the field,” Head Coach Brian Schmetzer said of João Paulo. “I know JP didn’t want to come out of the game, to leave him on for 90 [minutes] so he could build some fitness. But at the end of the day, I think it was the right move, the safe move, to keep him healthy. We will need JP throughout the course of the year. He was tremendous tonight.”
The presence João Paulo brings to the pitch is also evident in how it affects others around him. Because of how strong he is defensively, it frees up both Albert Rusnák and Nicolás Lodeiro to play more aggressively in the attack and take more chances in the final third. The Sounders’ four-goal performance was due in no small part to the extra numbers they could afford to throw forward.
“We’re super fortunate at this club to have such a great group of players, so for me to see JP back on the field, he’s worked so hard, he’s such an integral part of this team, he brings so much leadership and obviously he’s an incredible player on the field,” said forward Jordan Morris, who bagged a brace. “We missed him a lot last year after he got injured. To have him back, he’s going to make a huge difference for us.”
The Sounders and João Paulo return to Lumen Field next Saturday looking for another three points when they host Real Salt Lake (7:30 p.m. PT; MLS Season Pass On Apple TV App | TICKETS). They’re hoping for an equally impressive showing, one that feels all the more within reach with their midfield rock back in the fold.
“You guys saw tonight what the team is capable of,” said Schmetzer. “I thought it was great, I thought it was awesome, I thought the guys were sharp, I thought they were mentally into the game.
“The expectations of this club are very high,” he continued. “We’re a big club, and we take all competitions seriously. There’s that pressure that comes with being a big club, so from where I sit, the pressure wasn’t so much from the outside, but it’s internal from the coaching staff and the players. We didn’t like what happened last year [in missing the playoffs]. We didn’t like what happened in Morocco [at the FIFA Club World Cup]. We’re motivated to replicate this type of performance.”
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