At the peak of his unparalleled performance in ten seasons for the Seattle Sounders, Osvaldo Alonso was both an exceptional holding midfielder - relied upon to hold the ball in traffic and choose a safe, accurate pass from the middle of the field - and the most active midfield destroyer in the league. Alonso was so active and effective in those two roles that he took tactical pressure from other positions on the field - making it easier to start wide midfielders that behaved as third forwards (e.g., Lamar Neagle), aggressive fullbacks (e.g., DeAndre Yedlin, Joevin Jones), and occasionally-flaky depth players on the backline, all without sacrificing one of the league’s best defenses. Most of Alonso’s worst moments over that time were the result of injury rather than ill performance, including missing key moments of the 2014, 2015, and 2017 MLS Cup playoffs.
Injury has kept Ozzie from starting 18 of Seattle’s last 30 regular season games, so one could just as easily attribute his recent struggles of performance to injury rather than any other potential cause - aging, changing league context, or physical decline from years of playing the game harder than just about anyone else. Regardless of the cause, we’re now nearly halfway through a second season of a significant decline in Alonso’s defensive numbers:
The top graph depicts Alonso’s attempted defensive actions per 90 minutes, and the middle graph shows his “won possessions” (successful tackles and interceptions). The “MLS average line” and +/- 1 standard deviation lines are taken from the top 10 (by minutes played) starting defensive midfielders in the league from 2013-2017 (50 seasonal performances, altogether). The bottom graph is a measurement of Alonso’s activity in distribution rates and defensive rates relative to that 50-performance average (a sum of how many standard deviations from the league mean his own performance was for both defensive actions and attempted passes per 90 minutes).
Alonso is still generally more “active” than your average MLS DM, responsible for nearly 69 passes or crosses per 90’ (positional MLS avg, 55.21). His passing is more accurate than average, but also more conservative (he has never been a deep-lying creative threat, relative to his peers). When he makes a tackle attempt, he remains more successful than average (78.26% of his tackles, vs. an MLS avg. of 72.89%), but his rates of defensive challenges and ball winning have fallen off by about three and two per game, respectively (bear in mind that measured defensive actions likely under-count overall defensive activity - failing to win possession twice in a game may seem minimal, but likely reflects a corresponding decline in actions that aren’t measured, such as closing off passing lanes or shielding off attacking runs). Even if the central cause is injury, it’s been too long a stretch of time to think it a statistical fluke, or to think that building health or fitness will easily reverse the trend.
You could easily look at the same data and disagree with my headline. In the right circumstances, an accurate-if-conservative holding midfielder has plenty of value to offer an MLS team. But the 2018 Sounders are all about the wrong circumstances - injuries and ineffectiveness along the backline, difficulties in chance creation from the attacking midfield, and another CM in Cristian Roldan who is already one of the best DMs in the league. Starting Alonso now represents an opportunity cost in failing to field another attacker, and of pushing Roldan out of the role in which he offers the most value to the present team. Alonso, at his best, made it possible for the rest of the team to play to its strengths when particular starters lacked quality in defense or possession. Unfortunately, his best retained skill (possession) isn’t worth a DP investment, and offers the present roster little it cannot otherwise accomplish through other midfield options with broader skill sets. I hope to be wrong - that Ozzie will discover some fountain of youth and regeneration that returns him to form. But for now, for the desperate needs of the 2018 Sounders, his remaining skill does not warrant a role in the starting XI.