Osvaldo Alonso's peerless play could finally propel Seattle to MLS Cup
Around this time last year, several MLS media outlets reported the the Seattle Sounders were actively shopping Cuban midfielder Osvaldo Alonso around the league in a bid to offload his reported $800,000 salary. Alonso had just crested the hill that is 30 years of age, traditionally the time when clubs begin to rethink their investment in players for whom injury is a regular occupational hazard and aging legs are a hindrance to covering the ample distances in the center of the field.
Seattle did not find any takers, at least for whatever it was the club wanted in return.
Part of the Sounders' thinking when it came to Alonso likely had to do with his injury history. He missed 15 games in 2015, including all three of Seattle's playoff matches. In 2014, he missed the first leg of the conference final clash with the LA Galaxy, a game that LA won 1-0.
As good as Alonso still was, even at 30, he couldn't seem to stay healthy when the team needed him most. That made him expendable.
So far, 2016 has been a story of redemption for Alonso. The club can't be anything other than thrilled that no MLS teams made a good enough offer to prompt Seattle to follow through on a trade. Even as his team struggled for the first two-thirds of the season, Alonso was consistently dominant from his defensive midfield position and remained healthy all year long.
With the installation of Brian Schmetzer as head coach and the arrival of Nicolas Lodeiro, the Sounders began a remarkable march toward a playoff berth. While those two men deserve much of the credit for the turnaround, it would not have been possible without Alonso and his steady excellence in the middle of the field.
With Lodeiro on the scene to better take advantage of Alonso's work, the Sounders have reeled off an 8-2-4 record over their last 14 games.
Just how good was Alonso this season? From his defensive midfield role, Alonso completed 91 percent of the 2,235 passes he attempted. No player in the league passed the ball more; Wil Trapp of Columbus was the only other player in MLS with more than 1,600 passes to his name (1,734). Only Alonso reached the 90 percent threshold among players with more than 1,000 attempts.
Boiling all of that down, no player in the league passed the ball more often and more accurately than Alonso, and it's not close. It's not as though Alonso racked up those gaudy passing numbers by pushing the ball safely backward, either, as 76 percent of his passes moved the ball up the field. In a league that elevates the role of the defensive midfielder to one of the most important in the lineup because of the direct, physical nature of the play, Alonso is head and shoulders above every other player in his position.
As if that wasn't enough, Alonso also led the league in tackles won, duels won and recoveries. That's the pinnacle of every category that matters for a player manning his position. Seattle could hardly ask for anything more.
For the first time in three seasons, Alonso is healthy and helping Sounders push through the MLS Cup playoffs. His ability to bring the ball out of midfield -- quite often after he himself has recovered it -- has already made a massive difference in their ability to control the speed of the game and utilize their group of attackers.
Alonso arrived in Seattle in 2009 and has remained a fixture of the team in the years since. Along with captain Brad Evans, no Sounder embodies the club's climb to MLS elite status since their expansion as much as Alonso. The midfielder was a key cog in the machine that earned the franchise a Supporters' Shield and four U.S. Open Cups since 2009. Regardless of how much money the club spends on attackers or how many new faces are added year to year, Alonso is a constant.
The Sounders face the Colorado Rapids in the Western Conference final, a stern test that will likely come down to the clash of midfield. If Seattle proves able to extend its historic run from ninth place in July to an MLS Cup final, it will be because Alonso did the bulk of the heavy lifting. If the man the Sounders faithful lovingly dubbed "Honey Badger" -- because of his fearless, aggressive style -- can channel his talent and avoid the drift over the physical edge that sometimes accompanies his game, the Sounders will be in prime position to make their first-ever MLS Cup final.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.