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How will Sounders replace João Paulo?

Sounders feel as though they have the necessary depth at defensive midfielder.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

TUKWILA — There’s no way around it, the Seattle Sounders suffered a serious blow when they lost João Paulo to a torn ACL on Wednesday. Head coach Brian Schmetzer confirmed that the Brazilian will be out for the remainder of the year and that a timeline for his return can’t even be determined until swelling subsides and surgery can take place.

Somewhat complicating the situation is that João Paulo’s injury happened the same day that the primary transfer window closed, meaning the Sounders no longer have the option of receiving roster relief by placing him on the season-ending injury list nor the ability to make a transfer replacement before the summer window.

In the meantime, the Sounders have about two-thirds of the MLS season and potentially a bunch of U.S. Open Cup games to navigate. The first of those games is on Saturday against FC Dallas, but they have at least five more before the end of the month.

Head coach Brian Schmetzer confirmed the Sounders will be heavily rotating that lineup, and also expressed confidence in his defensive midfield options.

“We almost have too much depth,” Schmetzer said on Friday. “We have three young kids who are super talented.”

Here’s a quick look at those options:

  • Obed Vargas got the call to replace João Paulo on Wednesday and has been Schmetzer’s first option at defensive midfield off the bench most of the year. Vargas has already appeared in 14 games this year, including all seven MLS matches. Most inside the organization seem to think he’ll eventually become their first major outgoing transfer and this could be an opportunity to showcase him in a significant way.
  • Josh Atencio was the Sounders’ young breakout player in 2021, but injuries wiped out most of his preseason and he’s only recently gotten fully fit. Atencio has been limited to just two appearances and one start, in which he was pulled at halftime. Atencio has great size, good vision and is a solid passer, but definitely needs some minutes to regain the form he showed last year.
  • Before Vargas and before Atencio, Danny Leyva was the team’s teenaged midfield phenom. Leyva was also derailed by injury but seems to be on his way back and is still just 19. Leyva has a very good passing range and defensive instincts, but his mobility might not be up to the standards of the other two.

If the Sounders need to supplement their defensive midfield further, they have a few veterans who could step in as well. Kelyn Rowe has been used there most often, but is also the primary backup at both left and right back; Jimmy Medranda has played a lot of defensive mid in his career, but has been used almost exclusively as a left-sided player for the Sounders; Cristian Roldan could potentially drop back from his spot on the right wing; and Alex Roldan started his MLS career in the defensive midfield and plays there often for El Salvador, but hasn’t played inside much in recent years.

The one player we know will be in the defensive midfield is Albert Rusnák, who was arguably the Sounders best player on Wednesday and only seemed to grow into the role after João Paulo went out.

Rusnák had previously played holding midfielder some in Holland and occasionally dropped back from an attacking role with Real Salt Lake more recently. He said the move came about naturally with the Sounders, and that he’s been enjoying the position change.

“I don’t think we even had a conversation [about moving], it just happened,” Rusnak said. “There were games where I started farther up and then moved to the middle as the game progressed. It suited the team, it suited everyone. I felt more comfortable there and I think we played better when I came into the middle as opposed to out wide. It’s just one of those things that happened and I’m happy it happened. It seems to have worked out okay.”

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