Seattle Sounders look to youth as post-João Paulo reality sets in

A home Open Cup loss, as agonizingly narrow as it was, to a Quakes side mercilessly routed by the Sounders several times in recent years raises further questions ahead of the Loons’ visit, starting with the pressing matter of the João Paulo-sized hole in deep midfield.

An ACL tear suffered in the first half of the second-leg CCL final victory over Pumas UNAM has ruled out the Brazilian No. 6 – an All-Star and Seattle’s team MVP last year – for the rest of the season. That robs the Rave Green of their metronome, a do-it-all problem solver who in 2021 ranked among league leaders in a diverse span of categories, ranging from assists and interceptions to tackles won and chance creation from set pieces.

As much as Schmetzer had to chop and change his lineups while fighting on two fronts, João Paulo was close to ever-present, starting seven of their eight CCL matches and six of their seven MLS games before his injury. But the coach has so far maintained that SSFC’s impressive depth means reinforcement from outside is not necessary – granted, though, a cynic might say he had little choice considering that the injury happened to coincide with the closing of MLS’s Primary Transfer Window on May 4.

“We almost have too much depth [at holding mid], ”Schmetzer said last week. “We have three young kids who are super talented.”

That would be Obed Vargas, the 16-year-old wunderkind who replaced João Paulo against Pumas and has inspired a surging hype train with his start to 2022; Josh Atencio, last year’s engine-room revelation, still just 20; and Danny Leyva, another teenage talent once rated as the club’s top prospect. All are homegrowns out of Seattle’s increasingly prolific academy, and all seem to have earned the faith of Schmetzer and the technical staff writ large.

Vargas and Atencio started against FC Dallas last weekend; Leyva and Atencio got the nod vs. the Quakes at Starfire. Given how seamlessly and effectively he’s slotted into a deeper role in Seattle, Designated Player Albert Rusnak is likely to be eased back into one of those No. 6 slots soon.

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