TUKWILA – It’s the way he delivers his speech. An old-school swag drenched Ozzie Alonso’s words as he talked about playing before 40,000 fans at CenturyLink Field.
His old school. Where the former Sounders original helped establish the club through championships, sold-out matches and marquee players.
Seattle will aim to close that old door Sunday.
Alonso, who signed with Minnesota in January, makes his first return to CenturyLink with the United intending to dismiss the Sounders to a lower position in Western Conference standings as the Loons prepare for their first MLS playoff in their three-year history.
“When it’s difficult, it’s more exciting,” said Alonso with the inflection of a champion via video provided by MLS. “If you win there in Seattle, in front of 40,000 people and my former team, it’s going to be great. I like the pressure. Second place is there for both teams, so we’re going to fight for it.”
Shouting “We’re No. 2” rings of failure to some Sounders players. But a victory Sunday in the league’s regular-season finale could signal Part 2 of a lesson in winning for the franchise.
To the victor goes home-field advantage through the Western Conference semifinals in the debut of the MSL single-elimination postseason tournament. Minnesota (15-10-8) currently holds the position against Seattle (15-10-8) due to the goal-differential tiebreaker. A draw or defeat for either Sunday opens the door for the Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake to jostle the top of the table and possibly send either the Sounders or United to fifth. The top four seeds are guaranteed an opening-round home game.
Alonso knows exactly what that means for Seattle. The Rave Green lovingly called him the Honey Badger as he led the Sounders defensive attack to help the team compile a 99-35-32 record at CenturyLink in 10 seasons with a MLS-record 144 consecutive sellouts.
The Sounders signed Alonso in 2009 after he defected from Cuba in 2007. While in Seattle, he became a U.S. citizen, got married, became a father and was most decorated player in the club’s history. Alonso still holds the Sounders’ career record for most MLS games and minutes played. He was a part of capturing four U.S. Open Cups, the 2014 Supporters’ Shield and 2016 MLS Cup.
For Minnesota, Alonso scored the club’s first goal at the Loons’ new Allianz Field and the equalizer in a 2-1 victory against Sporting Kansas City to clinch the playoff berth.
“He was here for a long time and helped us win a lot of trophies,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. “It’s also a sad story. … Should he have retired with us, (playing) all with one club? The reasons why he went to Minnesota, all of that sort of stuff, is out of my hands. The fact of the matter is he’s a great player and I know he’ll get a warm reception from the fans.”
The Sounders are 10-2-4 at home this season, leading many across the league to believe if Seattle gets to be a host, it surely would reach the conference finals where it likely would travel to play at Los Angeles FC, which clinched the MLS Supporters’ Shield earlier this season.
Seattle and Minnesota finished in a draw when they faced each other at Allianz Field in May. The Sounders will have at least five changes to the lineup in this match, now having a healthy striker in Raul Ruidiaz and defenders Gustav Svensson and Kelvin Leerdam.
However, winger Victor Rodriguez (oblique) and captain Nicolas Lodeiro (lower back) are questionable due to injuries and defender Xavier Arreaga is serving a one-game suspension for two yellow cards in the road victory against San Jose last week.
“It’s a big test,” said Leerdam, who played two seasons with Alonso. “Minnesota has raised the level in this league because they’ve developed these last three years and they’ve gotten better players. …Ozzie is just a good leader. He brings fire to the team and I bet that’s what he did to Minnesota.”
Probably. New team, old-school lesson.