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Who should play alongside Joao Paulo?

The football pitch often resembles a stage where magic unfolds. For the Sounders, Joao Paulo has consistently been that magician in the midfield. But even the most adept magician requires a trustworthy assistant to actualize the most astounding tricks.

This season, three players have had the opportunity to be Joao’s midfield companion:


Albert Rusnak

Obed Vargas

Joshua Atencio


In this article, I’ll delve into why Joshua Atencio, despite his limited game time this year, should be the chosen assistant as we forge ahead into the playoffs.


Yes, he has a small sample size of games this year. He's played more than 60 minutes, 8 times.

In those 8 games the Sounders are 5-2-1.

The essence of the argument here pivots on the belief that Atencio alleviates Joao's defensive responsibilities within the current formation, a solace not as pronounced with Rusnak or Vargas. This defensive equilibrium was similarly witnessed in partnerships with Roldan and Svensson due to their defensive acumen.


Let's run a defensive comparison of:


Joshua Atencio - 2023 - 21 years old

Obed Vargas - 2023 - 17 years old!

Albert Rusnak - 2023 - 28 years old

Cristian Roldan - 2021 - 25 years old

Gustav Svensson - 2020 - 32 years old


The data reveals Atencio as an exceptionally active defender, crafting a partnership reminiscent of previous defensive pairings:

Joao/Roldan,

Joao/Svensson,

and Svensson/Roldan.


When ranked per 90 minutes among these players, Atencio effortlessly claims top spots in several defensive metrics, easing the defensive burden on Joao. Conversely, Rusnak, this year’s primary starter, consistently finds himself at the tail end of these defensive rankings.

Rank (per 90)

1

2

3

4

5

Tackles

Atencio

3.48

Svensson

2.55

Vargas

Roldan

1.11

Rusnak

0.67

Blocks

Atencio

1.57

Svensson

1.42

Vargas

Roldan

0.92

Rusnak

0.47

Interceptions

Svensson

2.45

Atencio

1.46

Vargas

Roldan

0.92

Rusnak

0.79

​Clearances

Atencio

1.35

Svensson

1.32

Vargas

Roldan

0.73

Rusnak

0.18

Aerial Duels

Atencio

2.36

Svensson

1.79

Roldan

Vargas

0.55

Rusnak

0.25

Atencio is 3-5x! MORE Defensively active than Rusnak.


The collective frustration of us at Spicy Teriyaki HQ doesn't stem from questioning Rusnak’s skill but rather scrutinizing his integration alongside Joao. The team visibly grappled without Joao last year. Yet, in the preceding three seasons, two MLS cup participations were achieved, partially attributed to consistently defensive midfield pairings of Joao, Roldan, and Svensson.


Joao’s positional magic is magnified when paired with a defensively aggressive and mindful assistant like Atencio. His playing time has been sparse due to ongoing development, particularly in decision-making and positioning. However, his creative passing and movement, once fully harnessed, will not only be a plus but also a distinguishing factor.


Vargas, while youthful, carries a hefty hype that undeniably influences backroom discussions. Meanwhile, Rusnak's selection often feels rooted in the sunk cost fallacy, particularly with both he and Lodeiro vying for the same position as designated players. Only recently has it been realized that one of them must be on the bench for the current set of players and formation to work efficiently.


My optimism, even amid critique, remains steadfast because this team is merely an apt partner for Joao AND a healthy Cristian Roldan away from claiming the MLS cup.


They are that close. The defense has shown they can win games on their own. The offense just needs to participate a goal a game and the Seattle Sounders will have a chance to win every game.



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