Having gone from expansion to the MLS Cup championship in eight seasons, the trick for the Seattle Sounders FC, now, is to discover ways to sustain the magic and fire and competitive edge that got them here.
The “messaging” regarding the fight against complacency started from the first day of preseason training, coach Brian Schmetzer assured last week.
It should be easy to find the appropriate paradigm, in fact, an actual physical embodiment of the unrelenting drive that has been a part of the Sounders’ success from Day One.
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The central midfielder was on the field at the team’s Starfire headquarters last week, starting his ninth season with the Sounders. Now 31 years old, he has started more games and played more minutes than any Sounder.
He was involved in setting up Fredy Montero for the Sounders’ first MLS goal in the spring of 2009. And he was on the field for 120 minutes, despite a badly sprained knee, when the Sounders topped Toronto FC on penalty kicks to win the MLS title on Dec. 10.
“From the beginning until now … it was like raising a baby,” Alonso said. “Little by little, crawling, then walking, then running and making the championship. I’m very, very happy to be a part of this.”
Schmetzer said he knew there was no way Alonso would miss that title game, even though he was considered questionable with the knee injury suffered in the semifinals.
“Ozzie was never going to not play in this game, and that’s a testament to how tough he is,” Schmetzer said after the title game. “He had to get an injection and had another injection at halftime just to keep himself in the game. He’s just tough as nails.”
More than his toughness powered him that night. Who had come so far and risked so much to get there? Besides, his family was there — his entire family — on that frigid night in Toronto. His wife, children, mother, father and sister.
It was the culmination of a series of dramatic events, starting with Alonso’s daring defection from Cuba, abandoning his life at home with his family for the chance to play professional soccer in America.
He gained his citizenship in 2012, and with the eventual warming of relations with Cuba, his family relocated to Miami.
Alonso’s unusual gateway to freedom was a Walmart in Houston, where he sprinted away from his visiting Cuban U-23 national team in June 2007. He had no plans and no contacts, just the vision of himself playing in the MLS.
From the moment the Sounders took the field the first time in 2009, Alonso showed himself as someone who defended with a linebacker’s intensity, but could pass like a point guard.
It wasn’t until September 2015, though, that his father and inspiration, Osvaldo Alonso Sr., was able to get to America to see the son he had coached since he was 5. By then, Osvaldo the younger had become an MLS All-Star with a family of his own.
A steadying force for the Sounders as he matured, Alonso’s play and leadership was critical last summer when the team stood ninth in the 10-team Western Conference. Schmetzer replaced seminal coach Sigi Schmid, and star player Clint Dempsey was sidelined with an irregular heartbeat in late August.
But the Sounders put together an 8-2-4 record under Schmetzer and then roared through the playoffs.
“We believed we were capable of playing better, and little by little, step by step, we fought back,” Alonso said.
One of the great images after the championship was of Alonso holding the cup over his head, screaming toward the sky, eyes squinting in joy.
What could that moment have been like for him? To win the title, in front of his entire family, at the cost of having sacrificed so many years apart from them?
Alonso nodded, and tapped his heart.
“Yes, it was emotional,” he said. “It was hard to bring them here, then to get to the championship, and for them to see us win. Very emotional. Very, very emotional.”
If anybody needs an example of how dramatically sports can change a person’s life, or how far dedication and hard work can take one, or what it means to have the heart of a champion, they need only consider the experience of Osvaldo Alonso.