It takes a solid roster to make it through the challenging schedule, injuries and international call-ups Sounders FC has faced this season. For that, Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer took a moment to thank former scouting director Chris Henderson.
Henderson left last winter for a similar position with Inter Miami CF after nearly 13 seasons combing the globe for talent to play in Seattle. One of his parting gifts? Brazilian midfielder Joao Paulo.
“He’s been tremendous for us,” Schmetzer said of Joao Paulo, who was signed as a designated player in January 2020. “Chris Henderson gets a lot of credit there. He vouched for JP’s character. That’s been a massive signing for the club, and that was Chris.”
Joao Paulo’s first-half score Saturday helped the Sounders defeat Minnesota United FC 1-0 at Lumen Field. The club has a short turnaround to face Liga MX side Santos Laguna on Tuesday night at Lumen Field.
The match is the semifinal round of Leagues Cup. The single-elimination tournament between Mexico’s top-flight league and MLS originated in 2019 but was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Seattle advanced by defeating Tigres UANL 3-0 at home. Santos Laguna shut out Orlando City SC 1-0 to advance.
Joao Paulo has a team-leading eight assists and two goals this season. But he may not get the start Tuesday, and that’s not a big concern. The Sounders roster has shown to be interchangeable at all positions — including in goal.
“It’s definitely important to have a sound, full roster,” said Joao Paulo, as translated from Portuguese. “You cannot think that you can get far or to the playoffs playing with just 11. We need to be a prepared team playing with 18, 20.
“We’ve demonstrated that, and probably with even more players, especially with some of the young players that are just showing up now. (But keeper Stefan Frei), we missed him. We like what the (backup goalkeepers) did; they did great work. But definitely the sense of security and the energy that he gives, it’s important to us.”
Saturday’s win was Frei’s first start since May, after recovering from a sprained knee that developed a blood clot.
Stefan Cleveland, who hadn’t started an MLS match since 2018, was Frei’s primary replacement in goal. The Ohio native was 7-3-5 through all competitions with three clean sheets and conceding 15 goals. Spencer Richey, a former University of Washington standout, logged two wins, both shutouts.
“Some people could look at that as more pressure,” Frei said of his backups being able to keep Seattle atop the MLS Western Conference standings. Cleveland collected the clean sheet against Tigres.
“For me, it gave me comfort that I didn’t need to rush back,” Frei continued. “I could really focus on my own rehab and recovery because we were in such good hands. And pride comes into play, ’cause we pride ourselves in having a good squad as a whole.”
Schmetzer was even able to preserve midfielder Cristian Roldan because of the added depth in picking up French midfielder Nico Benezet in a trade with Colorado. Saturday was Benezet’s second start since arriving in August, recording an assist on Joao Paulo’s goal.
“You saw his quality,” Schmetzer said. “He had a very good week of training, 10 days of training. So I thought he earned a little bit of a chance to start and show us what he could do.”
Roldan (U.S.), along with his brother, Alex (El Salvador); striker Raul Ruidiaz (Peru); and defender Xavier Arreaga (Ecuador) spent the past two weeks with their national teams for World Cup qualifying matches. Ruidiaz and Arreaga were the last to return — around midnight Friday — and should be available for selection against Santos.
But if not, Schmetzer has options.
“I’m not planning on making many changes,” Schmetzer said. “I’m just going to see who’s available. See who recovers. … We are taking this game very seriously. I know (Sounders majority owner) Adrian Hanauer and the owner of Santos (Alejandro Irarragorri) are good friends. Believe me, we are going to be ready for Tuesday.”