The photo of the Seattle Sounders lifting the Concacaf Champions League trophy at Lumen Field on May 4, 2022, will be forever etched into the history of both the club and Major League Soccer, as the Rave Green became the first MLS team to achieve CCL glory in its current iteration.
In the front of that photo, sitting on the stage next to a pair of crutches, is João Paulo, the Sounders’ midfield dynamo who was forced off in the first half of that decisive home leg because of a torn ACL. The Brazilian was as instrumental as any in leading the Sounders to that point and was gutted not to be on the field to close out that match.
“I didn’t want to be crying and in the spotlight in that moment,” said João Paulo. “It was a mix of emotions in the same game. I tried to focus on the team, and what we were trying to do was bigger than me and any player, so I was so happy at the end. For a couple hours, I could just forget about the injury and just celebrate with my teammates.”
João Paulo would miss the remainder of the 2022 season, one in which the Sounders failed to qualify for the postseason for the first time in their 14-year MLS history. Seattle certainly missed its midfield talisman, who was coming off a 2021 MLS Best XI selection and MVP nomination.
The most difficult part of the eight-month recovery for João Paulo, he said, was just having to watch from afar and not being able to contribute.
“It doesn’t matter if the injury is long or short, you just want to be on the field and help your teammates,” he said. “It was challenging, it was tough, but my mindset was ready for that … I’m very happy to be back and training. I missed that time for sure.”
It’s unclear just how much time, if any, João Paulo will get in Morocco as the Sounders prepare to take on Egyptian side Al Ahly SC in the second round of the 2022 FIFA Club World Cup in Tangier on Saturday (9 a.m. PT; FOX 13+, FS2, Fox Deportes). He played 45 minutes last week in a friendly against Swedish club Hammarby IF, his first match action since the injury.
The Sounders will still try to ease João Paulo into full match fitness, and he credits the training staff for helping his recovery happen as quickly and smoothly as possible. In particular, he thanked Strength & Conditioning Coach Megan Young and Physical Therapist Heidi Biehl for staying by his side throughout the significant progress he’s made.
“I want to play like how I did before the injury,” he said. “I feel 100% motivated and ready for that. I know it could take some time to get to that level again, but I’m ready and I think I’m doing a pretty good job of working hard to be that JP again.”
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Now, the Sounders have an opportunity to challenge the world’s best, with a date against global giants Real Madrid awaiting in the semifinal if Seattle were to advance. The opportunity isn’t lost on this veteran-laden team, João Paulo included.
“As a player, you always dream of playing on this world stage,” he said. “Some of the players can do that when they’re young, and we have a lot of younger players who are kind of lucky. For me, at 32, it’s probably my last chance.
“We spend a life of soccer dreaming of this moment, and now we are ready for this challenge. It’s very important for us, for the players, for the staff, for the city, for MLS. We need to be ready.”