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Underrated Sounders: The rare talent of Alvaro Fernandez

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Alvaro Fernandez had a style that was one of a kind.

MLS: MLS Cup Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After starting this “Underrated Sounders” series with a couple of safe choices, we moved into murkier waters with Mario Martinez, who played less than 750 minutes with the club, and Eddie Johnson, who had his share of controversial moments. (On a personal note, I back the ‘pay me’ celebration, and may or may not practice it into the mirror as part of a daily self-affirmation routine.)

Regardless, while those tougher pieces have been fun, times are hard, and I’m going for another gimme: Alvaro Fernandez.

History

The club brought Fernandez to Seattle twice, each time with a very different set of expectations. In 2010, Fernandez signed and became the second highest paid player on the team and occupying a Designated Player spot. As a player who had just helped Uruguay reach the semi-finals of the 2010 World Cup, his task was to provide immediate offensive impact.

In 2016, Fernandez rejoined the Sounders as an under-the-radar pickup one day after his fellow countryman, Nicolas Lodeiro, stole headlines with a big money deal. Fernandez’s return signing was all about chipping away at general manager Garth Lagerwey’s vision of fattening the middle-salary portion of the roster. That year Fernandez became the fifth Sounder to sign for a base salary in the $200-$300k range. Four of those players were midfielders potentially competing for the same minutes.

In both stints, Fernandez did well enough to take the team to new heights, but not well enough to lock down a long-term role with the club. In 2012 he was traded to the Chicago Fire for allocation money, and in 2017, his contract ran out midseason.

Playing style:

Fernandez was a goal dangerous winger with enough height to be an aerial threat and enough skill to create for himself and others. Known as “Flaco” (Spanish for skinny), the wide midfielder was slightly built, but played with tenacity that exceeded his frame.

Beyond mixing it up in the box for headers against MLS’s bulky center backs, Fernandez carved out a role for himself as a player who could go at defenders 1v1 down the wing. Though lacking top end speed, he provided true width for the team thanks to his ability to unbalance opposing outside backs.

In one of his best goals for the club (and a goal of the week nominee to boot) Fernandez spins one defender with a crafty first touch, then freezes a second with two quick cuts before slotting the ball far post. On another classic Flaco goal, he shows just enough speed to track down a long ball in behind a Colorado Rapids outside back, but instead of continuing to pace that outside back, gives a quick hip shimmy, cuts the ball back inside, and scores while the Rapids player tumbles to the turf trying to regain position.

Trophies and Highlights

Fernandez nabbed two U.S. Open Cups and one MLS Cup during his time with the team. Not bad for a guy who only played one full season and four half seasons with the club. He also got minutes in each of the finals that led to those trophies, starting the U.S. Open Cup in 2011 and appearing as a sub in 2010 and 2016. Beyond finals, he helped the team fall only four points short of Supporters’ Shield in 2011 while finishing second for goals during the only season the Sounders led the league in offense.

More importantly, if there can be something more important than trophies, Fernandez once made a Toronto defender fall over with one of the nastiest Cruyffs I’ve ever seen in real time.

Digitize my ashes and bury me with this gif:

Why he’s underrated

Honestly, the above highlight alone puts him in the Sounders pantheon for me. But for the sake of making a complete argument, I think there are two key aspects of Fernandez’s time in Seattle that go overlooked.

The first is related to the highlight in that he’s one of only a few select Sounders who could truly break down a defender 1v1 from the wing. The first do it consistently was Steve Zakuani, and Fernandez’s presence after Zakuani’s gut-punch injury was a huge boost. The other player who could, and still does, break defenders down 1v1 is Jordan Morris, and he didn’t fully unlock his dribbling ability until last year. Of those three players, Fernandez surely possessed the least natural speed, making his penchant for cruising by defenders all the more impressive.

The second part of his legacy that goes overlooked was the historical significance of each of his signings. He first joined the Sounders immediately after starting a World Cup quarterfinal that his team won. His contract wasn’t huge by today’s standards, but it marked one of many slow steps that MLS took towards becoming viable participants in the South American transfer market. His signing also included a transfer fee, which at the time was still a rarity in MLS.

When Fernandez rejoined the Sounders the second time, his signing represented a key shift in their philosophy as a whole. In this new era, all 11 positions, and ideally most of the bench, would be made up of guys who were at least borderline international quality. When Fernandez came off the bench in the final against Toronto, he was one of three midfielders (along with Andreas Ivanschitz and Brad Evans) in the aforementioned $200-$300k salary range to sub into the game. Those three players were crucial in guiding the team to penalties against all odds. Never before had the Sounders deployed so much quality and pedigree outside their starting 11.

But beyond all that, Fernandez’s height, frame, and skill, all of which seemed oddly juxtaposed against one another, showed that great players come in many shapes and sizes. For that, I give a shout out to the creative midfielder who during his heyday allowed a certain skinny high school soccer player (me) to continue to dream. Cheers to you, Flaco.