TUKWILA — Defensive midfielders rarely score in soccer. To not only score but have two entered in the “Goal of the Year” debate?
That’s the artistry and talent of Joao Paulo.
“I see three letters,” Sounders forward Fredy Montero said of his teammate. “M-V-P.”
Joao Paulo — pronounced joe-OW — is one of five finalists for the Landon Donovan MLS Most Valuable Player Award. Finalists were determined by votes from MLS players and technical staffs and select media members.
Second-year Sounder Yeimar Gomez Andrade is one of three finalists for Defender of the Year and Brian Schmetzer is one of three finalists for the Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year honor.
Joao Paulo opened the club’s scoring with a banger in the 49th minute of the season opener against Minnesota. The jaw-dropping volley from deep seemingly couldn’t be topped, but in October at Lumen Field, the defensive midfielder outdid himself in a win against Colorado with what’s now dubbed “Beard Quake” because of the Brazilian’s lumberjack facial hair.
Gathering control of the ball at midfield in first-half stoppage time, Joao Paulo evaded four defenders in a solo dribble toward goal, nutmegging keeper Clint Irwin inside the box for the score.
The run was reminiscent of Marshawn Lynch’s “Beast Quake” in January 2011 during the Seahawks’ playoff win, the few differences being the direction — Lynch was toward the stadium’s south goal — sport and player.
Extra time, an official MLS podcast, tweeted a mashup of Lynch narrating his famous run with video of Joao Paulo’s score, the depiction nearly in sync. Lynch approved, quote tweeting “YesLawd.”
“I was surprised about the interaction,” said Joao Paulo as translated from Portuguese. He’s an avid NFL fan since childhood in Brazil, but his favorite team is the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“(Lynch’s) play was a lot more influential, determinant,” Joao Paulo continued. “But just to hear about the comparison makes me happy.
“I believe my game has a little bit of a mix of characteristics. I have punch and dedication; I want to show that I’m active in the match. I want to show I want to win a match. On the other hand, I also consider myself a technical player who likes to have the ball on my feet and I like to participate in the transition. People here (U.S.) call it a two-way player.”
The duality is why Joao Paulo is not only considered an MVP by teammates but leaguewide. Joao Paulo’s 11 assists during the regular season tied for sixth in MLS. He was fifth in MLS in touches (2,463) and won 42 duels.
The Sounders have played the majority of the season without co-captain Nico Lodeiro. Joao Paulo is part of the reason the team didn’t dip below third place in the Western Conference this season. The Brazilian is expected to be available for selection when the second-seeded Sounders host seventh-seeded Real Salt Lake in the opening round of the playoffs Tuesday at Lumen Field. They are entering the postseason on a six-game winless streak.
“The last six matches were no good,” Joao Paulo said. “But it happened, and we have to face it. We have to admit it, address it, fix it and prepare with no regrets. Now there is one match only, and we need to perform.”
Because Joao Paulo is Brazilian, it’s easy to think the country’s notoriety in soccer is why he’s skilled at the sport. But those roots are from Futsal, which is also popular in Brazil and recognized by FIFA, soccer’s governing body.
Futsal is played indoors with a smaller ball on hardwood floors with dimensions much smaller than a traditional soccer field. The game requires quick thinking, accurate passing, strength and ability to defend and score — all that can be spotted in the “Beard Quake” goal.
Joao Paulo, 30, advanced to the state level in Futsal, switching to soccer at age 14. He was a natural anchor in the midfield, turning professional in 2010 and building a decadelong career in Brazil.
Former Sounders scout Chris Henderson and his brother Sean, who’s now the club’s scouting director, spotted Joao Paulo while he was playing for Botafogo in Brazil’s top-flight Serie A league.
The storied club with a 116-year history was showing signs of its current fall when Joao Paulo last played there in 2019, finishing 15th in the table. The Rio de Janeiro side was relegated in February and is reportedly $150 million USD in debt.
The Sounders’ winning tradition — the club is making their MLS-record 13th playoff appearance and won titles in 2016 and 2019 — was alluring. The Puget Sound’s rainy season reminded Joao Paulo of home in southern Brazil.
The Sounders signed Joao Paulo as the club’s third Designated Player in January 2020. The transfer for his rights was completed before the 2021 season. The Brazilian is signed through 2023 and is earning a base salary of $1 million this year.
“Everybody has this awareness of how Botafogo operates and frankly, I was not seeing any improvements,” Joao Paulo said. “Don’t get me wrong, I had great years there and I played well, and the team had great moments. It was just not aligned to my future plans. I wanted something different and this proposal from the Sounders came in very good time.”
Joao Paulo, wife Bruana and children Joaquim and Helena moved to the Seattle area just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The virus overwhelmed Brazil and with borders closed for nearly 20 months, they haven’t seen extended family.
Soccer was a welcomed distraction for Joao Paulo. Scoring created a chance to playfully involved his children in matches this year, mimicking a dance from their favorite animated film “Luca” after the Beard Quake goal.
“Sometimes it takes players a little bit of time to adjust to MLS,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. “JP is a very astute soccer player. He watches a lot of film on his opponents outside of what the coaching staff provides for him. As he’s grown to get to know the league’s style of play, he’s gotten better.”
Good enough to finesse his way into the MVP conversation highlighted by two goals that will be talkers long after his MLS career is complete.
“It all comes down to how the playoffs will pan out,” Joao Paulo said. He helped the Sounders advanced to the 2020 MLS Cup final, losing to the Columbus Crew. “Last year left a sour taste. My hope is this year we close things in a better way.”