Throughout the Seattle Sounders’ run to the 2019 MLS Cup, there was one persistent complaint from Brian Schmetzer. The midfield, he’d often say, struggled to control the tempo.
Sometimes, this would mean the Sounders needed to play quicker. Other times, it meant they needed to keep from playing so quickly. Essentially, Schmetzer was looking for someone — preferably one of his central midfielders — to do what Osvaldo Alonso so often did: dictate the pace of the game.
Schmetzer’s frustrations would usually show up in close games where the Sounders struggled to put away their opponents. A classic example was the 4-3 win over FC Dallas in the Western Conference quarterfinals, where the Sounders led 2-0 and 3-1 before pulling out the result in overtime. But there were plenty of other times, such as a 4-2 win over the New York Red Bulls where the Sounders allowed a 2-0 lead to be erased, and a 4-3 win over the LA Galaxy in which they let leads of 2-0 and 3-2 evaporate.
The Dallas game seemed to be a wakeup call of sorts. In the final three games of their MLS Cup-winning run, the Sounders built leads, expanded on them and ultimately came out on top with multi-goal wins.
But those frustrations seemed to be top of mind when the Sounders went into the offseason where signing a deep-lying central midfielder was a clear priority. By most accounts, João Paulo was not necessarily their first choice. Now 14 games into this season, it’s hard to imagine a better fit.
The 3-1 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday marked the seventh time this year where the Sounders have won by two goals or more. Six of those wins have come in João Paulo’s 10 starts. The Sounders are now 7-2-1 with a +16 goal difference in those games. If maintained over a full 34-game season, they’d finish with 75 points and +58 goal difference, both of which would be MLS records.
João Paulo’s impact?
João Paulo’s influence can be seen in direct and indirect ways.
Perhaps more important, though, is the less obvious contributions.
The Sounders have grown fond of starting possession with the ball at João Paulo’s feet. Against pressing teams, he’ll sometimes drop all the way back to the goal box to receive a pass there. Sometimes, he’ll dribble in order to draw a double-team before finding an open teammate. No one on the Sounders has a better dribbling percentage (he’s 13 for 14) and only Nicolas Lodeiro is asked to “carry” the ball more.
When teams are dropping back, he’ll collect the ball about 40 yards out, pick up his head and look for streaking runners. While there are players with better passing percentages and more aggressive tendencies, perhaps no Sounders player ever has combined those two characteristics quite like João Paulo.
João Paulo is averaging about 77 passes per 90 minutes, just one fewer than team leader Nicolás Lodeiro. He’s also completing 83% of those passes, which have traveled a team high 13,000 yards.
One example against the Whitecaps resulted in him feeding Jordan Morris for a breakaway chance on a perfectly lofted ball.
I have no idea why anyone is letting João Paulo make uncontested passes like this, but my god it's wonderful to watch. pic.twitter.com/asSUIHX0aM— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) October 4, 2020
This combination of accuracy and aggressiveness seems to be acting as a force-amplifier, to take a term from GM Garth Lagerwey.
The single biggest benefactor appears to be Lodeiro. The Uruguayan is famous for his engine, but a lot of his energy is often spent dropping into the defensive midfield to collect the ball. Without João Paulo on the field, only about 23 of Lodeiro’s 79 touches a game are in the offensive third. When João Paulo plays, Lodeiro adds about 15 touches a game, 10 of which are in the offensive third.
Those increased touches in dangerous areas have resulted in .36 more expected assists per 90 minutes. Even more impressive is that Lodeiro’s number of goal-creating actions per game (any shot or pass that directly leads to a goal) is three times higher when João Paulo is playing than when he’s not. Similarly, when João Paulo is playing, Lodeiro creates 5.63 shot-creating actions per 90, as opposed to 3.00 when he doesn’t. While there’s clearly a sample size issue when comparing this year’s numbers, it’s notable that Lodeiro’s shot- and goal-creating rates with João Paulo on the field are both improvements over those stats from last year, when he averaged 5.22 SCA and .65 GCA per 90.
While not as dramatic, Raúl Ruidíaz also is performing better with João Paulo on the field than without. Ruidíaz averages .8 goals per game and 2.2 SCA when João Paulo plays, both of which would be the best he’s averaged during any season with the Sounders.
Understandably, Lodeiro, Ruidíaz and Jordan Morris are getting the bulk of the attention when national pundits discuss potential MVP candidates. I don’t expect João Paulo to enter that discussion, but I don’t think there’s anyone who’s been more important to the Sounders’ success this year than the Brazilian.