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João Paulo’s likely absence will test Sounders’ depth

Midfielder deemed “very questionable” for top-of-the-table clash with St. Louis City.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Sporting Kansas City William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

SEATTLE — Heading into a top-of-the-table clash with St. Louis City SC on Saturday, the Seattle Sounders will likely be a little short-handed.

Head coach Brian Schmetzer revealed on Friday that João Paulo is “very questionable” for the match after feeling some tightness in his right hamstring. João Paulo was mostly off to the side during the training session at Lumen Field.

“It’s early in the season,” Schmetzer explained. “He’s been dealing with some hamstring tightness and chances are he’s not going to play.”

Since João Paulo joined the Sounders ahead of the 2020 season, his impact has been undeniable. During those three seasons, the Sounders have averaged 1.85 points per game in MLS competition when the Brazilian midfielder plays. When he doesn’t, the Sounders’ PPG drops to 1.18. Last year, the Sounders won Concacaf Champions League with João Paulo and then went 10-14-4 after he tore his ACL.

On paper, though, the Sounders seem reasonably well-equipped to handle João Paulo’s absence, at least in the short term. Josh Atencio appears to be Schmetzer’s first choice, but Obed Vargas and Danny Leyva have also filled in. The Sounders’ record without João Paulo may also somewhat overstate his importance, as they were only .02 worse on expected goal-difference per 90 minutes when he was out last year.

Possibly contributing to Schmetzer’s decision-making process is the knowledge that João Paulo is still working himself back into full fitness after missing most of last season. So far, he has played 88% of the available minutes and getting some rest now — regardless of the reasons — isn’t the worst idea.

Georgi Minoungou update

One of the Sounders’ top prospects coming into this season was Georgi Minoungou, who joined the Tacoma Defiance this offseason on a permanent transfer after playing with the team on loan last year. Minoungou trained extensively with the first team and even scored a goal during a preseason game in Spain.

But shortly after returning from Spain, a problem with Minoungou’s eye was discovered that kept him out of training while he saw specialists. This week, he was finally able to rejoin training, albeit with protective goggles.

“He had a surgical procedure and he’s back,” Schmetzer said. “It’s a great story because he’s a great kid, love having him around. He’s super talented. It’s something that could be more serious down the road. But our doctors are taking good care of him.”

The 20-year-old Ivory Coast native had two goals and five assists in less than 800 minutes with Defiance last year.

What to do at No. 9?

While the Sounders' striker depth may be giving opposing defenses nightmares, it’s also causing Schmetzer some consternation. At the heart of the issue is how to balance riding Jordan Morris’ hot hand — he has five goals in his last two games at striker — and figuring out how to work Raúl Ruidíaz back into the lineup, while also trying to find minutes for Héber.

Further complicating the issue is that Léo Chú has been just about as hot as Morris. The Brazilian has a goal and five assists in his past two games.

“It’s still keeping me up at night,” Schmetzer said.

Handling the press

No team in MLS has been as active in their press this season as St. Louis City. The expansion team is averaging a league-low 7.9 passes per defensive action and has forced 67 turnovers in the opposition’s defensive third, which is the third most in the league. Their defensive effort, somewhat counter-intuitively, is a major reason why they lead the league with 15 goals, three of which have come directly off those high turnovers.

The Sounders have had mixed success against the other pressing teams they’ve played this year, losing on the road to FC Cincinnati, 1-0, and mostly controlling play but settling for a 1-1 tie at home against LAFC.

“I don’t think it’s anything different, they’re just committed to it,” Sounders right back Alex Roldán said earlier this week. “Some teams it doesn’t come off as well because they have a couple of players who might not be as disciplined and it breaks down, you find a gap to play through. Everyone is bought into what they are trying to do. That doesn’t mean their press will always work and we need to find deficiencies in it.”

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