Osvaldo Alonso is back in the Sounders defensive midfield. And a team seeking more leadership both on and off the field hopes he can stick there a lot longer.
There’s been a recurring theme spread by Sounders faithful that midfielder Osvaldo Alonso could have made a difference for the team when it was waxed in last year’s MLS Cup final.
Certainly, it was tough to miss the yeoman job by Toronto FC counterpart Michael Bradley suffocating the Sounders all game last December while a sidelined Alonso could only watch. Then again, one of the most valuable players in Sounders history wasn’t the same on-field guy throughout 2017 compared to his dominant, aggressive performances of years past.
Alonso was at his fouling, disruptive best in the final 22 minutes against Sporting Kansas City last Sunday in his season debut. But 22 minutes of stellar passing accuracy, ball control and initiating counter-attacks is hardly enough to conclude whether a battered captain Alonso, at 32, can continue to be a difference-maker the club needs.
“Just his mere presence on the field was good,’’ Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said Wednesday as his squad, now 0-3-1, resumed training ahead of Sunday’s match at home versus Minnesota United FC.
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Indeed, a club struggling for any veteran leadership it could find in recent weeks can do worse than Alonso finally making it back on the field. Slowed throughout last year by assorted leg problems that limited him to his third fewest starts and minute totals of his career, the last original Sounders player has taken all winter and then some to make his way back.
Forget missing last year’s MLS Cup final. Alonso is in many ways still recovering from the 2016 championship victory at Toronto, when he needed painkiller injections in his knee to stay on the field. He was left unprotected in the off-season expansion draft – infuriating the proud Cuban emigree – and this campaign will likely be Alonso’s final one here given his designated player salary and limited time on the field since that title game victory 16 months ago.
The question is what Alonso can actually do if this is his final hurrah season.
“Good players always make players around them better,’’ Schmetzer said. “I think Ozzie has always made players around him better. Early on in his years, just his defensive output was such that he could let the attacking guys do what they needed to do. But he’s also come full circle in his game and his passing and completion percentages, those are all very high as well.’’
Alonso had four ball recoveries, two tackles and two intercepted passes Sunday in his limited time on the field. He also made 23 successful passes on 24 attempts, while providing his usual feistiness that makes opponents take notice.
“I’m very happy to play football again,’’ Alonso said following the 2-2 draw against the Western Division leaders, adding “it was tough when you’re sitting there watching the team for so long.’’
And now, as is the case with other key components on the team, it’s a matter how long he can keep this up.
The Sounders have paid a huge price not having attacking midfielder Victor Rodriguez around as he struggles with a lingering leg issue he hopes can be overcome shortly. That Schmetzer preferred to start rookie Alex Roldan over hyped veteran import Magnus Wolff Eikrem at Kansas City speaks volumes about what has been missing within the attacking third thus far.
On the defensive side, center back Kim Kee-hee is unlikely to return before May; that strained calf muscle looking to take him towards the longer end of the typical 5-to-8 week recovery.
Between those attackers and defenders, there was always Alonso as the glue holding it all together. And now, with both ends straining, the glue is needed more than ever.
“It’s hard when you’re injured and you’re outside the field,’’ Alonso had said two weeks ago while still awaiting his debut.
He’d talked about the three red cards in the opening three games being something the Sounders had to fix. But he also added that, as a guy who wasn’t yet playing, it was tough to know whether any corrective or positive messages he could deliver to teammates would be of value.
You’ve got to be on the field to talk. And Alonso hasn’t been out there for a while.
So, perhaps Schmetzer was completely correct in saying Wednesday that Alonso’s biggest contribution last weekend was simply being on the field again. Schmetzer dropped a side tidbit about the reaction of some veteran players after a mental error by second-year left back Nouhou cost the Sounders the tying goal of Sunday’s match.
“There was a good conversation right after the game, by some of the senior players, about that particular play, that second goal,’’ he said. “And it’s their team. I loved it. That means I don’t have to talk as much and just let them solve it.’’
That’s the type of leadership and self-policing Schmetzer has hoped for during this rough opening to the season. And he should have more of it as long as his unquestioned leader can stay on the field.