SEATTLE — For all the success the Seattle Sounders have had this year, they’ve yet to put together something that felt like a comprehensive performance. The blowout of Minnesota United in the season-opener was almost entirely the product of a dominant second half; the 3-0 win over the LA Galaxy was certainly a strong performance but they also gave up quite a few chances; and the 2-0 home win over LAFC was far more clinical than dominant.
In a sense, the Sounders are still looking for that game where they control play, put the game away early and cruise. But in some ways, Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake came pretty close to achieving that platonic ideal.
OK, so as the scoreline suggests, this was not a game where they put it away early and cruised. But their inability to do that wasn’t for a lack of chances. The Sounders generated plenty of danger in the first half and when Cristian Roldan finally scored the breakthrough goal in the 58th minute, it did feel like they were about to put the game on ice.
As we know, that’s not what happened. RSL was awarded a penalty that tied the game and the Sounders needed a fortuitous penalty of their own to pull out the win. That shouldn’t diminish anything they accomplished, however, while dominating RSL in just about every aspect other than the scoreline.
Perhaps the most illustrative statistic was that the Sounders didn’t allow RSL to take a single shot from open play. Aside from the goal that came on a penalty, RSL only managed three other shots, all off corner kicks. Aside from those three corner kicks that resulted in relatively low-probability shots, RSL only completed two other passes into the penalty area. Both of those came in the first half. In the second half, the only pass of any kind they completed into penalty area was a corner kick. If the Sounders continue to defend like that, it’s going to be a very long year for opposing teams.
As important as the three centerbacks were in that performance — and all three once again turned in solid shifts — the standout player in this game was João Paulo.
The Brazilian midfielder did not register a goal or an assist, but was massively influential on both sides of the field. On the defensive side, João Paulo led the team with five tackles and 11 successful pressures (via FBRef.com). Osvaldo Alonso, by comparison, has only had more tackles in a game four times since 2018 and has only had more successful pressures once.
In possession, João Paulo was perhaps even more impressive. He led the team with 95 passes and completed 81.1% of them, more total passes and the same number of completed passes as the top two RSL midfielders combined. He wasn’t just hitting square balls, either — João Paulo had an astounding 19 line-breaking passes, according to the Sounders’ internal data. That’s more than double the number any Sounder other than him has had in a single game this year. In total, he was credited with 838 yards of progressive passing distance. Best I can tell, that’s the most of any MLS player this season.
This video of all of João Paulo’s 111 touches does a pretty good job of illustrating just how much trouble he caused RSL’s defense and how he repeatedly pulled them out of shape.
It was no surprise that virtually every dangerous chance the Sounders had in this game involved João Paulo in some way.
But my favorite moment of his comes at the end of the video when he and Fredy Montero are working a two-man game in the corner in an attempt to milk the clock. The two veterans are able to run down about 1:30 of the seven minutes of stoppage time during that routine while doing nothing but frustrating the RSL players in perfectly legal ways.
While this may have been João Paulo’s best single-game performance of the season, it bears noting that it’s not some sort of extreme outlier in his season. He leads all of MLS in tackles won (30) and is fourth in successful pressures (81). He also ranks ninth in total passes, but with more progressive distances than all but four of the players ahead of him on that list. João Paulo’s five assists rank second in MLS. Suffice to to say, none of those players are doing more on the defensive side of the ball.
That the Sounders are off to their best-ever start despite missing as many as five starters for significant portions of this season is due in no small part to João Paulo’s play. If end-of-season awards were being doled out right now, he’d have an excellent case to make for Best XI and maybe even MVP.