#1 João Paulo – 6.80 in 35 appearances
Community rating – 6.85
MOTM = 5 High = 8 Low = 5
Once again, #1 in Realio’s Ratings is the incredible João Paulo. This was the third consecutive year he topped the ratings, with a commanding lead on his teammates. In 2023 he was healthy, effective, and clearly the best player for Seattle. Seemingly getting stronger, this was his highest number of appearances in a Sounders season. He was consistently awesome, earning a rating of 8 an incredible seven times. Only once in 2023 did he get a below-average rating, in a ten-minute substitute appearance. JP put up five assists while being dominant in passing completion, attempts, progressive passing, and offensive carries. Defensively, he was nothing short of spectacular, dominating in interceptions and tackles, and understanding when to cut out an opponent passing attempt and when to lay the lumber physically. He was partnered with multiple teammates in the defensive midfield, but every time out he made the players around him better. Whether it was adding defensive presence across the entire field, pushing possession into attacking areas, combining with teammates to control tempo, or going direct with a purpose, JP was once again the standout player for Seattle this season.
What I liked: It's JP, and a healthy JP has been magnificent for Seattle since he walked in the door. This season he took more central responsibility as pieces shuffled around him. When paired with Albert Rusnák, he did the dirty work, sweeping across the defensive midfield and showing his trademark toughness and tackling skill. When joined with Josh Atencio, he was freed to push higher and combine more intricately, resulting in more offense. JP’s progressive passing numbers were massive, continually focused on pushing vertically. The most important aspect of JP’s skillset is his tactical precision and game understanding. He knows exactly when to make the big statement tackle, when to press and release to the width, and when to go direct on his own. He is clearly the engine of the team, and at times he’d dictate the entire match, be it running the show from a deeper area, destroying opponents’ attempts to push forward, and often both. JP was an essential part of why the team had the best defense in the league; he led the Sounders with 50 tackles, more than twice what Yeimar and Jackson Ragen had combined. It was João’s combination of fierce tenacity (defend first, then kick-start attacks through counter play) and his ability to push the aggression after a turnover that was essential to Seattle taking advantage of their stalwart defensive positioning. JP was awesome, averaging 7.25 in four playoff match ratings and earning MOTM in the final two, ending the season with this:
“João Paulo was the biggest impact player for Seattle, and he did some of everything yet again. Leading the match with a mind-boggling 134 touches, JP completed 85 percent. He added seven tackles and two interceptions on the defensive end to completely bottle up the LAFC midfield. Offensively, he had impact all over the field, leading the team with three shots, adding two key passes, and having a team-high 18 progressive passes. He was absolutely dominant and clearly the best player on the field.”
Best player on the field? But what about the league’s highest goal scorer, or others who played in that match? No. JP was the best player on the field, as he was in most games he participated in.
What I didn’t like: It took too long to figure out the best partner for JP centrally, and that was hard to watch. The iteration with Rusnák forced JP to be more defensive as Albert was an okay defender, but did so with position and not physicality, which João was asked to provide. Vargas was better on the physicality but prone to losing his position, and JP seemed frustrated with this combination, whether due to Obed’s hesitance or the lack of on-field chemistry. Lodeiro dropped into defensive midfield a time or two, and these guys looked interesting together, but ultimately Nico’s movement and verticality forced JP into a subservient role that didn't work as well as hoped. Atencio and JP looked the most cohesive fit as a full time partnership, but it wasn’t (re)established until nearly the end of the season. Throughout this turmoil, JP was asked to do everything, and he often did. This was the first year that JP didn’t score a goal, failing to convert any of a number of exciting shots from the top of the box. Because of how skilled he is, it's hard to temper expectations of more goals, and we’ve seen a few of his long range volleys go in the net, but that didn’t happen in 2023. João could get frustrated with opponents and teammates alike, and sometimes tried to do too much, which led to seven yellow cards and one red as he led the team in fouls committed. A number of infractions gave fortuitous set pieces to opponents, opportunities for teams when little else was going right for them. And, sadly, there were the dark days of poetry ratings. JP subbed in late to a 0-2 Vancouver loss and earned his lowest rating:
“Coming into the Vancouver game late
Desperately trying to change Sounders fate
JP opened the space
But his teammates lacked pace
So no chance to change the game state”
Moving forward: JP is the best defensive midfielder in the league. He does so much to impact a game that sometimes he’s taken for granted. His suffocating defensive skills limited the work required by the other defenders and Stefan Frei, and his offensive push nearly led the team to playing for another MLS Cup. His combination play drove the team into advantageous positions, and he did so with remarkable consistency in 2023, creating and dominating nearly every single time out. The key for Seattle moving forward is to continue to put the right supplemental pieces around JP to enhance his incredible abilities. If that is Atencio centrally and Rusnák in front of him, Seattle has to lean into what made that work, namely “letting JP cook.” The Sounders have a highly technical midfield that is potentially adding some more creative pieces. The team needs to review the success of the last few months of 2023 and see how it can be improved upon. They should find a balance that allows João to affect both ends of the field — solid defense coupled with more successful scoring opportunities. I wouldn’t complain if another player surpassed JP for the #1 spot in 2024, because that would be some fabulous soccering, but JP has the technical skills, tenacity, and soccer IQ to be the Sounders’ best player for the fourth year in a row.