#1 João Paulo
Realio’s rating: 6.85 in 13 appearances
Community rating: 6.88
MLS App 6, Rating 6.67; CCL App 7, Rating 7.00; MOTM 1
2022 Recap: 2022 ends with a Realio’s Ratings champion who only played in 13 matches. We were left to wonder what could have been had João Paulo not torn his ACL in the Concacaf Champions League final. We will never know, but we do know the team was much better with him than without. The team’s record with him on the field was good — 5 wins, 3 losses, and 4 draws for a 1.46 points per game, but that only tells half the story. A Sounders squad that struggled throughout the year was much better with JP on the field. During games he played, Seattle had a goal differential of +12, as he had the ability to improve all facets of the match. When a defender needed cover, JP was the guy to pop up and make the play in the box to prevent a shot. When Seattle needed possession and someone to push through the middle, he carried the ball on the dribble into attacking areas. JP had a goal, an assist, and six key passes in his six MLS matches, which made him one of the top scorers and creators … all from a deep defensive position that often asked him to be the enforcer as well. His 53 MLS duels averaged out to a duel every 8.6 minutes, an average that was clearly missed as those who filled in when he was gone outside of Danny Leyva (Leyva every 7.7, Obed Vargas ever 9.2 minutes, Josh Atencio every 9.3 minutes, Albert Rusnák every 13.5 minutes) were not nearly as much of a defensive hindrance in the midfield. While this might not seem a lot at first glance, that is five more defensive actions per match than Rusnák, and the willingness to get into and win physical battles in the middle was greatly missed as the season wore on. JP wasn’t just good at scoring, defending, and assisting, he was also excellent at controlling the match through his possession numbers. He was credited with three turnovers total in the six matches he played, and rarely lost the ball, even though he was often the person getting it under (and skillfully getting out of) duress. This player simply made everyone around him so much better, as they knew they were getting defensive support and a guaranteed safe outlet, a tireless midfield runner who would be a break out option capable of hitting the crucial over-the-top ball or switching pass, and an essential playmaker who knew when to join the attack with a through ball or third man attack. When given a chance to strike on goal, he did that. All were displayed in a MOTM performance against Minnesota away on April 1: “With a more parallel role to Rusnák, João Paulo was everywhere on the field, contributing massively to nearly every aspect of the match. His MOTM performance displayed excellent passing (85 percent on a team-high 97 touches), defense (team-high four tackles), and attacking (team-high three shots, two key passes, and a goal). He did it all. It was a perfect pressing moment in the 38th minute via Morris, Roldan, and Nico that created a turnover and quick counter through a vertical run. João immediately drifted into the open space and was found by a psychic Nicolás Lodeiro. JP’s first-time shot was a blistering outside of the right foot shot from 20 yards out that hit the back of the net before Minnesota knew what happened.” João is one of the rare players who can and will impact all aspects of the match. Unfortunately, he tore an ACL in the beginning of the CCL final and was sorely missed as he had to watch the rest of the season from the sidelines.
Going Forward: Coming back from an ACL tear may be easier than it was a decade ago, but it is still a huge undertaking that requires physical dedication, mental strength, and luck. There is no guarantee that João will be as good as prior to his injury, and he may take some time to find out who he will be as a player. For every Morris or Lodeiro who return strong from a knee surgery, there is a Bruin or Marshall who aren’t able to recover as well. At 31, JP is young enough to expect that he will return as strong as before, but he may need some time to acclimate to game speed and aggressiveness. If he can show anything near what he was doing at the start of 2022, he will be an easy comeback player of the year (and darkhorse MVP) candidate in 2023. JP, when healthy, puts up all-time top 5 rating averages and, like 2021, was again the highest ranked player on SSFC in 2022. Everything on the team starts with his play, and it is essential that he (and Seattle) figure out their identity quickly going into the new season.
The 2022 Seattle Sounders team had the lowest overall season numbers ever received in Realio’s Ratings, and that correlated to their first time missing the playoffs. Although many players dropped from their averages, much of their struggles can be attributed to a long season (42 matches rated, the same number as the 2016 season that included six playoff games) and injuries to key players. The core group has another chance to make a point before the next generation arrives, and to make that point they will be looking for trophies and redemption from a disappointing 2022. Seattle clearly has the talent to be elite (insert witty CCL quip here), but needs to continue to evolve a system that allows them to succeed even when not carried by superstars. In a long MLS season, the difference is often just a few points, and last year the Sounders had numerous lost opportunities and dropped points. The foundation from academy to first team is strong and full of quality. Figuring out the midfield formation and positioning and finding the best use of seven to eight interchangeable parts will be the first vitally important missions of the coaching staff. If these issues can be solved, there is every reason to expect Seattle to compete for numerous trophies in 2023.