On a crisp Saturday evening in Canada, the Seattle Sounders lifted the MLS Cup and completed their worst-to-first turnaround. Fans in the stands were numb — not just from the frigid temperatures, but also due to ecstatic disbelief. We had actually done it. A team that had 4% odds to make the playoffs in July turned a season around and won the title that has eluded them for 7 years.
MLS Cup Champions.
As the team circled around the field hoisting the Cup above their heads, one player took a small, momentary detour — one that was years in the making.
Osvaldo Alonso, a Sounders MLS original and team captain for the championship match, ran to the sidelines to find his father. Until last year, the pair had been forced apart for nearly a decade, after Alonso defected from Cuba in 2007 during a soccer tournament. His only contact with his father was through phone calls and emails.
Their celebration — captured beautifully by Sounders photographer Jane Gershovich — was an embrace both waited years to share.
As much as that moment occurred between father and son (and Alonso’s sister and mom, who were also at the match), it encompassed how much this victory means to both Ozzie and his other family: the supporters who love him like one of their own.
In reflecting on all that Alonso has meant to this club, it is crazy to look back and consider how the season started: with rumors of Alonso departing Seattle. To the relief of Seattle supporters everywhere, he was brought back and had one of his best seasons — solidifying his status as one of the best defensive midfielders in league history.
This year, with a solid defense behind him, and a young protege alongside him in Cristian Roldan, Ozzie was no longer asked to be both the offensive and defensive engine for the team. He could be the creator when needed, while also having the freedom to hang back and help the team absorb pressure, or spark a counter attack.
Alonso finished the regular season in the top 10 in passes per 90 minutes, passing accuracy, recoveries per 90, and tackles per 90. WhoScored rated him as the second best MLS player in the regular season, behind only Sebastian Giovinco. While doing all of this, he also showed a growing maturity and leadership.
Alonso still played on the edge of recklessness — his red card against Houston is a perfect example — but he less frequently put himself in a position for ejection. He was also less likely to get fired up after a bad tackle from an opponent, and his once-a-game blast that used to go well over the crossbar turned into a perfectly weighted pass, a hard shot on frame, or even a goal.
Despite this growth in Alonso’s game, however, there is one thing he never lost: his “Honey Badger” grit and unmatched determination to do whatever was needed to help his team win. And in no game was that more obvious than the MLS Cup.
It wasn’t Ozzie’s best performance, but aside from Stefan Frei, he was Seattle’s most important player on Saturday. This, despite the fact that “El Corazon” was playing with a pulled tendon in his knee — an injury so painful, it required Alonso to get four pain injections before the match, and another four at halftime.
In a match where much of the play was in the Sounders defensive half, Ozzie was a calming presence that allowed the defenders around him to thrive. Chad Marshall and Roman Torres weren’t frantically chasing Toronto’s threatening attackers, while Joevin Jones and Tyrone Mears had one of their best defensive performances this season.
At the same time, we saw vintage Ozzie come out on multiple occasions — the ruthless competitor that bodies players off the ball, tossing people to the ground while managing to avoid a foul call. Case in point: this play in the 52nd minute, when Giovinco had the ball with space in front of him.
Referee Alan Kelly rightfully made no foul call on that challenge. Just two minutes later, Alonso broke up another Toronto attack with this challenge on Jonathan Osorio. Again, he timed it perfectly to avoid the foul.
On the other end, when Seattle was being pressed by Toronto’s overloaded midfield, the first player teammates looked for was Ozzie. He had four successful dribbles up the field — two more than any other player — and was dispossessed only once.
In the 99th minute, when one might have expected a player with half a leg to be subbed off, Alonso remained on the field and received a pass with two Toronto players closing in quickly. Sensing the pressure, he shielded the ball away from Will Johnson, while getting enough of a touch on it to avoid an onrushing Giovinco.
Blink and you could have missed that play, but it perfectly captures how critical Ozzie was to this MLS Cup victory.
When the final whistle blew before penalties, Alonso had tallied six tackles, eight clearances, and three interceptions while completing 80 percent of his 74 passes. He played through the pain so well that a casual observer wouldn’t have even noticed his injury. They might have even pointed to him as the most important player on the field.
That’s Ozzie Alonso.
Brash. Smart. Aggressive. Tactical. Clinical. Heart.
“His determination on half a leg ... it's just a testament on how much Ozzie wants to win, and I can’t be any more proud or happy that he’s in our club,” said Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer. “He’s just tough as nails.”
Alonso was one of the first players who convinced me to become a lifelong Sounders fan in 2009. He wore his heart on his sleeve, and his talent was so evident, even at the young age of 24. To see him develop over the years as a player, a teammate, and a leader has truly been an honor.
Ozzie was a key reason the Sounders won on Saturday, but as Cristian Roldan said after the Sounders secured their first-ever MLS Cup, “I think he’s the reason why we’re here, and I couldn’t be happier for him.”