Even though the Seattle Sounders are favored to win their first playoff match of 2016 against Sporting Kansas City, it’s definitely not a sure thing. Sporting won both matchups between the sides during the regular season, including the 3-0 drubbing that will forever be known as the tipping point of Sigi Schmid’s tenure with the club. But current head coach Brian Schmetzer isn’t worried about the lingering effects of that result: “This is a different group; it’s definitely different than the game in July.”
The introduction of Schmetzer’s coaching and managing styles changed the course of the Sounders’ season, as well as the signings of Nicolas Lodeiro and Flaco Fernandez. But there’s something else that this team has that they didn’t have in July—or in last season’s playoff run: Osvaldo Alonso.
While the aforementioned changes played a big part in the Sounders’ near-miracle of a run in the latter half of the season, Alonso’s form in central midfield has been close to MVP quality, according to Schmetzer. It’s also probably no coincidence that, of the two losses since the one in KC, Alonso was suspended for one—the recent 2-1 loss in Dallas. Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said Alonso is “vital” to the team, and that he’s had an incredible season, “even for his standards, which are very, very high.”
Having been without Alonso for last season’s playoff run, the club has clearly been working very hard to keep the midfielder strong and healthy for as much of the season as possible. It seems to have worked, for the most part, as Alonso has been available for much of the season and has owned the central defensive midfield role the whole time. Between the player’s hard work and that of the medical and sports science staff, Schmetzer said that “this year, it seems like everything has come together and Ozzie is enjoying this nice run of form.”
As for who we can expect to fill out the rest of the team on Thursday, it’s safe to say that Andreas Ivanschitz won’t be one of them. He was doing some light jogging at training on Tuesday, but he still hasn’t trained with the rest of the team since his injury against Houston.
Schmetzer mentioned that Brad Evans, who only played a second-half substitute role against Real Salt Lake on Sunday, could start in the right attacking midfield role, pushing Roldan back to a central role next to Alonso. Evans hasn’t started at center back since Roman Torres returned to full fitness, and a combination of injuries and a suspension have held the captain back even further. This change depends on how Schmetzer views Friberg, whom he said on Tuesday “is in a nice little run of form.” Only Schmetzer and his staff know what he’s going to do, but it’s quite possible that Thursday’s starting XI is the same as it was on Sunday.