The past few seasons have been a whirlwind for Seattle Sounders midfielder João Paulo.
After reaching the 2020 MLS Cup Final and finishing third in MLS MVP voting in 2021, João Paulo continued to reach new heights in 2022. The Brazilian midfielder was instrumental in the Sounders reaching the Concacaf Champions League Final. Unfortunately, a season-ending ACL injury suffered in title match saw his momentum cut short.
Fast forward 18 months, and JP is back to his pre-injury best. Seattle’s No. 6 was just named a finalist for MLS Comeback Player of the Year and is poised to lead a talented Sounders side on a postseason run, starting with FC Dallas at Lumen Field on Monday, October 30 (6:00 p.m. PT; Watch FREE on Apple TV, FS1, 950 KJR AM, iHeart Radio, Sirius XM, El Rey 1360AM | TICKETS).
“It was good to be in that award, but I’m very clear about the team comes first,” said João Paulo. “It is always the team first and what you need to do to finish the year in a strong fashion. I’m very glad for that, but business is not done yet.”
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Arguably one of the best two-way midfielders in the league, João Paulo also brings plenty of qualities that don’t always show up on the stat sheet. Perhaps the best example is the leadership and versatility he’s shown in helping young Homegrown Players Josh Atencio and Obed Vargas succeed as starters during the last couple of months.
“It's hard to get into this team,” added Roldan. “When you're so young like that, and we're seeing you Reed [Baker-Whiting], Josh and Obed contribute… And that's credit to those guys for working so hard.”
Atencio, 21, has done an excellent job of sharing the defensive responsibilities with João Paulo, shielding the back line and snuffing out chances before they can develop. The Sounders Academy alum has also added a bit of attacking thrust to the team with his ability to dribble into the final third and break lines with his proactive passing.
“We had been struggling a little bit conceding goals, shots and crosses, and Josh has done a really good job of stopping any potential counter attacks or offensive movements from the other team by stopping the play a little bit earlier, before it even gets there,” said Cristian Roldan. “So, credit to Josh, he stepped in really well.”
Vargas, 18, is no stranger to playing in high-pressure games. When João Paulo got injured in the CCL Final, it was the then-16-year-old midfielder who was called upon in the biggest match in club history. The Alaska native stepped up, and has since become a steady, reliable presence in the squad.
“He'll be in all of our decisions for the future,” Head Coach Brian Schmetzer said of Vargas after he returned from U.S. U-23 Camp. “I mean, he's a super talented kid.”
Having a player like João Paulo orchestrating the midfield has provided a platform for Atencio and Vargas to step into the limelight and succeed. And with both players capable of being starters in this team, it’s created an environment where they have pushed each other to constantly improve.
“They're pretty similar,” Schmetzer said ahead of Decision Day. “They both have good range, good technical ability… That's really tight. That's close. That's real competition. So how that progresses to St. Louis and the playoffs? We'll see.”
Whether it was Atencio or Vargas starting alongside João Paulo, the Sounders dominated the midfield during their nine-match unbeaten run to close the campaign. That blend of youthful exuberance and veteran experience has been the perfect balance heading into the postseason.
With João Paulo back to his best and the young Homegrowns coming into their own, the Sounders are now in position to make another postseason run, Together As One.