Amidst the star power of Dempsey and Martins, the rising talent of Neagel and Yedlin, and the surprising emergence of Barrett, the most important story of the Sounders 2014 season may be the one least discussed. That would be the late offseason addition of defensive midfielder Gonzalo Pineda.
At the time, his signing was almost an after thought. Pineda hadn’t played in a year due to a hernia and only a few months prior was considering retirement. Now the 31-year-old midfielder from Mexico City is a fixture in the starting 11, and an integral part of the Sounders' position at the top of the table.
While other have dazzled with individual skill, bursts of speed and of course goals, Pineda has anchored the team with an equally potent weapon: ruthless consistency in the middle of the pitch.
But to truly appreciate Pineda, Sounders fans must remember the struggles of seasons past. When they joined the MLS in 2009 Osvaldo Alonso emerged as not only one of the best players on the team, but in the league. However finding a consistent partner for him in the center midfield proved as lacking as Kasey Keller’s hairline. By my count Alonso lined up beside six different players last season. (Evans, Rose, Carrasco, Joseph, Dempsey, Moffat.)
The revolving door approach left the team scrambling to find its identity. And in the case of last year’s playoff debacle, it culminated in a schizophrenic attack. Coach Sigi Schmid’s last ditch compressed diamond midfield featured the likes of Adam Moffat on the left getting burned in open space and Clint Dempsey playing underneath two forwards where his utter disinterest in defense proved a serious liability.
Unfortunately last season’s crisis is the meltdown that proved the rule. From 2009-2012 Alonso has been paired with teammates who were either better left in the attack (Rosales, Dempsey, Friberg, Ljundberg), were past their prime (Joseph), never stuck around long enough to find their rhythm (Tiffert), lacked ball skills in tight spaces (Evans) or were just plain mediocre (Rose, Carrasco.)
Soccer is a simple game. Center midfielders need to keep the ball and put their teammates in positions to succeed A la Pineda. His passing percentage is 84%, (3rd highest amongst consistent starters.) And his consistency hasn’t come at the expense of play making ability. Over the course of the season, he’s created 24 scoring chances (2nd on the team) and has 5 assists (also 2nd on the team.)
On the defensive side of the ball, he lacks Alonso’s athleticism and appetite for bone crushing tackles. However his willingness to stay farther back on the pitch has helped the Sounders get numbers behind the ball and opened up space for the team’s considerable attacking weapons.
Championship teams are greater than the sum of their parts. Pineda exemplifies this. He’s not the best player on the team. He’s not even the best center midfielder on the team. But he makes everyone around him better. He relieves pressure on Alonso, opens space for Dempsey, distributes the ball to the flanks and feeds dimes to the strikers.
With the third highest payroll in the MLS, the Sounders aren’t short on star power. They pay Dempsey alone more than most clubs pay their entire roster. And yet in Pineda they found something that costs less but is just as necessary: the perfect teammate.