Ruidíaz’s opener in the 11th minute was a sight to behold – a legitimate golazo that is immediately in the conversation as the best goal the Peruvian striker has scored since joining the club (which is saying a lot).
But in midfielder João Paulo, the Sounders might have the X-factor that truly unlocks this team’s full potential. The Brazilian didn’t play in the MLS is Back Tournament due to a quad injury, but he showed the type of impact he can make on Sunday with a truly multi-faceted performance.
“I think you see a glimpse of what we can be tonight,” midfielder Cristian Roldan said after the game. “We didn’t play a perfect game, we didn’t play a great 90 minutes. But the deep-lying pass is so important. It’s so effective. To be able to play in behind, you need to also have the composure to play out of the back and maintain possession as well as being aggressive."
For all he brings defensively, João Paulo’s biggest asset is arguably his passing.
He’s a gifted distributor, particularly from long-range, which could be seen on Morris’ second goal of the evening when he shaped a pinpoint cross that allowed for a simple tap-in.
But Morris said that it was the whole sequence leading up to the pass that demonstrated the layers to his game.
“The [second goal] was all João,” Morris said. “He pressed high and you see the reward you get if you press high and win the ball. So, he won the ball and put a great ball in the box.”
João Paulo's interceptions (blue), tackles won (green), recoveries (orange) and blocks (purple) against LAFC | MLSsoccer.com
Now two games back into the MLS league restart, the Sounders find themselves firing on all cylinders, with six points taken from those two games against extremely difficult opponents in LAFC and the Portland Timbers.
They look much more like the team that won MLS Cup last November as opposed to a unit that struggled to get its footing at the tournament in Orlando – a scary thought for the rest of the league.
João Paulo isn’t the only reason for that, of course, but the level to which he’s able to elevate the other players on the field isn’t lost on Head Coach Brian Schmetzer.
“The first couple of goalkicks when he stood back and stood next to Stef [Frei] and got us possession higher up the field, that’s what he brings,” Schmetzer said. “He’s a very good passer, he’s a smart soccer player. And if you look at the second goal, he chased Blessing down the field, knocked him over and we ended up getting the ball and we went down and we scored.
“So, I think his contribution to tonight’s game was not just the really nice assist to Jordan on the third goal, but he had a lot of positive plays throughout the game.”