In a flash, Joao Paulo set the tone for his new Sounders squad.
The Brazilian was signed in January as Seattle’s third designated player, expected to play in the center midfield. Well, in Joao Paulo’s debut against CD Olimpia on Thursday, he did.
But he also showed how he could push forward and be goal dangerous, heading one home in the sixth minute of the CONCACAF Champions League matchup in Honduras. The shot to the back post helped Seattle finish in a 2-2 draw with Olimpia at Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula.
Champions League is a 16-team, two-legged series tournament where away goals are the tiebreaker. Seattle will host Olimpia on Feb. 27 at CenturyLink Field.
“That was a hard game,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said via audio provided by the club.
Here’s what was learned in the first leg.
The Sounders anticipated missing co-captain Nico Lodeiro for their Champions League opener. The center midfielder has a tendinitis injury in his right leg that he’s been managing since last year. Lodeiro even returned to his native Uruguay for treatment earlier this month.
Schmetzer was cautious with his star, not playing him against Olimpia. Instead, the coach inserted Joao Paulo at center midfield. Despite being touted for his defensive skill, Joao Paulo is a crafty scorer, too.
Sounders forward Jordan Morris provided an opportunity for Joao Paulo in the sixth minute after receiving a through ball from midfielder Joevin Jones. Morris deadened the ball as Joao Paulo sped to the box, receiving an airy pass to knock it in the net with his head.
Morris put the Sounders up 2-0 with a tap-in goal on the rebound of a Jones attempt. But Morris’ decision to try and flick a backward pass to Raul Ruidiaz to score late was a missed chance because Morris appeared to have a clear shot at goal.
“It was not wrong,” Schmetzer said of Morris. “But maybe he could’ve dribbled around the goalkeeper and scored. It’s just the sport.”
Joao Paulo was also a solid defender in the midfield to temper Olimpia’s pressure.
Speaking of defense
Without Gustav Svensson and Harry Shipp (illness), veteran Jordy Delem worked with Cristian Roldan as the defensive midfielders. Colombian defender Yeimar Gomez Andrade, who was signed earlier this month, teamed with Xavier Arreaga as the new back line and the group performed well until the 60th minute.
Whether tired or still developing chemistry, there was often a lack of communication that Olimpia whiffed on exploiting. Colombian striker Yustin Arboleda eventually found his way to score, taking advantage of a crowded box for the first goal in the 63rd minute and relaxed coverage by Arreaga in the 81st minute to tie the score at two goals each.
As the match wore on, Olimpia proved itself to be the fit team. The club entered the game having played eight league matches while Thursday was the first truly competitive game for the Sounders since winning the MLS Cup in November.
“We let them back in the game a little bit, which is frustrating,” Morris said via audio provided by the Sounders. “The attitude was right. You could tell toward the end, it was our first game and we were getting tired and they were putting a lot of pressure on us. The fitness will come.”
Roldan is the only player who saw minutes in Seattle’s 2-1 win against Olimpia in 2015. Former defender Brad Evans scored the winning goal in the 97th minute and his taunting afterward sparked a brawl on the CenturyLink turf.
Time and new rosters didn’t ease the tension between the clubs. Referee Juan Calderon showed six yellow cards in the opening 25 minutes, one each on the coaching staffs for arguing.
But there was a questionable decision when Calderon showed Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei a yellow card for arguing after Arboleda kicked him in the gut when attempting to score at the mouth of the net. International rules state that infraction is an automatic red card, which would have forced Olimpia to play a man down for 75 minutes.
“He shouldn’t have been called for a yellow card because it was a foul on him inside the penalty box,” Schmetzer said of Frei. “Stefan Frei played within the rules.”
About the MLS
No league team has won the modern version of Champions League and the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2000 was the last to win the regional tourney overall.
After the first leg, only Los Angeles FC is on the back foot after losing their Champions League opener. New York City FC had the only win of the five MLS clubs playing and the rest tied.