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João Paulo belongs in MLS MVP discussion

No one else has the Brazilian’s two-way play bonafides.

Jane Gershovich / Sounders FC Communications

If you spend any time listening to the national conversation around MLS, you’ve probably noticed that Carles Gil of the New England Revolution is the runaway favorite to win MVP. It’s not misplaced — Gil is having an outstanding season (3 goals, 16 assists) for a team that is on pace to set the points record.

To the degree that Gil is expected to be challenged, the consensus seems to be that Sporting KC’s Daniel Sallói is the player most likely to make a run. Sallói currently leads MLS in non-penalty goals (16) and in overall goals+assists (23), while playing for a team that is likely to finish no worse than top 5 in the Supporters’ Shield race.

While it would hardly be some miscarriage of justice if either were to win the award, I think there is a very legitimate case to be made for João Paulo to be included in that conversation.

I should first acknowledge that it is extremely unlikely that João Paulo will win this award, almost no matter what happens from here on out. The winners of the MVP award have almost exclusively been offensive players. The only exception to that rule was when goalkeeper Tony Meola won it in 2000 while registering 16 shutouts, a record that still stands today. The last time someone outside the Top 5 in goals+assists was even named a finalist was in 2009, when Shalrie Joseph finished second in MVP voting, and that was mostly because of his 8-goal, 8-assist season.

João Paulo currently sits on 3 goals and 10 assists, which are solid offensive numbers, but probably a bit short of the kind of stats that are going to make for a compelling national MVP campaign. I’m going to ask you to put all that aside and just open your mind to this simple question: Why shouldn’t the MVP be a player who contributes on both sides of the ball?

But let’s start with those offensive numbers, since that’s where a lot of voters are going to look anyway. If we simply jettison all the secondary assists and penalties from the conversation, João Paulo’s numbers look a lot better. He’s still got the three goals — all of them absolute bangers, by the way — and he still has 8 assists. Here’s how shows him stacking up against some of the other top contenders:

Admittedly, João Paulo still appears to be lacking by this metric but I think it shows that the gap isn’t quite as big as it may otherwise seem.

If we expand offensive contributions beyond simply goals and assists, though, João Paulo’s candidacy starts to look a bit better.

The strength of Gil’s candidacy is tied up in his excellent playmaking. No shade, he’s an extremely dangerous playmaker. But João Paulo is actually very effective in that department as well. While barely half of Gil’s 111, João Paulo’s 58 key passes — any pass that leads directly to a shot — rank 10th in MLS. João Paulo is also very effective at getting the ball into the final third, something he’s done 148 times (excluding set pieces). That’s 10th most in MLS and more than any of his fellow MVP contenders.

But those are numbers where João Paulo is basically being compared to others on their terms. Where this gets interesting is when we expand the scope of what makes an MVP to include statistics that normally go ignored.

João Paulo isn’t primarily an attacker like these other players. While Gil, Sallói and Hany Mukhtar are constantly looking for the killer pass, João Paulo is tasked with a lot more possession retention responsibilities. He’s averaging about 8 more passes per game than Gil and nearly twice as many as Mukhtar or Sallói, and he’s also completing them at a comparably similar rate.

When you combine his volume with the attacking nature of those passes, you start to create a profile that is really unmatched in MLS. João Paulo is 8th in completions and 10th in key passes, for instance. No one else is in the top 10 of both categories, and Eduard Atuesta (7th in completions and 20th in key passes) is the only other player who even ranks in the top 20 in both.

Of course, João Paulo isn’t just a great passer. He’s also a key component of the how the Sounders defend. The Sounders currently lead the league with 23 goals allowed. João Paulo is a major reason why. Not only does he lead the Sounders with 59 tackles won, but that’s the second most in the league.

He also leads the Sounders with 176 successful pressures, which ranks 7th in the league. (As a complete aside, the only other 30-something player who ranks among the top 20 in that category is Diego Chara.) The other players who rank among the top 10 in both those categories are all primarily defensive, as you might imagine. Suffice it to say, the other MVP contenders are not doing much tackling or pressuring.

Simply put, there are no other players who provide this sort of two-way play. The only player who ranks even in the top 25 of both assists and tackles won, for instance, is Julian Araujo (25th and 4th). There’s no one else in the league who ranks even among the Top 40 in both key passes and pressures.

Conveniently, João Paulo’s last two games ably illustrate his value. Against the Colorado Rapids, he was a dominant offensive player, contributing a goal and two assists in a 3-0 win over one of the league’s best teams. One of his assists was a side-footed volley that will go down as one of the most clever moves of the season. His goal was a rampaging 70-yard run in which he used speed, strength and guile to score what should be considered a top Goal of the Year contender.

A week later, João Paulo had a far more workmanlike performance against the Vancouver Whitecaps in which he completed 61 of 71 passes, won 10 duels, went 4-for-6 on dribbles, was 3-for-3 on tackles, made two interceptions and was credited with 16 recoveries.

Put it all together on a weekly basis and you get a heatmap that looks like this:


It should also not go overlooked that João Paulo has played in all but one of the Sounders’ 31 matches across all competitions this year, helping lead them to a 19-5-6 record. Gil has missed six of the Revolution’s 29 games and they’ve managed to go 4-1-1 in those matches.

As I said at the top, I don’t expect this argument to sway many MVP voters. I do, however, hope that it helps Sounders fans appreciate just how good João Paulo has been this year. What we’re seeing is someone signed in an effort to replace Osvaldo Alonso who was eventually asked to help shoulder the loss of Nicolas Lodeiro, and who has somehow managed to be a near-perfect blend of both.

Asked to sum up his teammate’s contributions, Fredy Montero may have said it best: “I see three letters: M-V-P. He’s amazing, he scores goals, he takes free kicks, corner kicks, he gives assists, he has personality, he’s teaching the kids and he’s listening to me, I like that too.”

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