By JOSÉ M. ROMERO
Osvaldo Alonso honestly felt that this could be the year for his Seattle Sounders.
He said as much late last week, before the Sounders were blasted 3-0 at Real Salt Lake in the first leg of the MLS Western Conference semifinals. Now Seattle is on the brink of elimination, and will rely heavily on its star midfielder, Alonso, if it hopes to advance to the next round.
The Sounders without Alonso is like a ship without a navigator. It is Alonso who helps spark the attack, plays tenacious defense, typically bosses the midfield and is hardly shy when it comes to challenging for the ball. Throw in the fact that he has a dangerous shot from distance and runs miles up and down the pitch on game nights chasing attackers and keeping possession, and the Sounders have their man in the middle.
That's why the club made it such a high priority to sign him to a contract extension last year, one that should keep him in the Pacific Northwest through the 2014 season. Management and coaches saw that tenacity and those skills, and wanted to hang onto them as Alonso, 25, eases into the prime years of his career.
"We knew he was a bulldog who covered a lot of ground, but the first year, he surpassed our expectations," general manager Adrian Hanauer told the Seattle Times last week.
It took a couple of years for the rest of soccer nation outside of Seattle to catch on and truly see how much of a difference the native of Cuba makes for the team. A little of that was Alonso's injury history — specifically a nagging quadriceps injury that bothered him in cold weather and cost him a handful of games the past two seasons. A little could have been his penchant for hard tackles and physical confrontation, which manifested itself in last Saturday's first playoff leg.
But now Alonso is recognized as one of the premiere holding midfielders — if not the best — in the league.
"One always wants to give more and more and more, but I'm really happy with everything I have done and everything I've achieved, and the club seems satisfied with me," Alonso said in an interview in Spanish. "I was really happy with the opportunity that management and coaches gave me with the contract and I'm glad I'm able to stay here and contribute to the team."
Seattle is a long way from the Charleston Battery, where the Sounders first saw the man who would anchor their midfield in the early days of the MLS franchise. It's a long way from Houston, where Alonso defected by leaving the Cuban national team during the 2007 Gold Cup, walking out of a Wal-Mart and onto a bus to Miami. It's a long way from San Cristobal, Cuba, Alonso's hometown. But now it is home for Alonso, his wife and daughter.
"Everything here is great, the fans, the team, the trainers, the coaches. We're a close-knit group," Alonso said. "It's great to be here in Seattle and have all the support from the fans, and that makes me a little emotional.
"It's always been a dream. Little by little I've achieved it, but now I am here and I'm able to grow more as a player," he added.
The chance to play abroad in Europe is also in Alonso's thoughts as something "anyone would want," he said, but he's only thinking about the Sounders at present. Europe can wait.
Other goals for Alonso: he'll begin the process of applying for U.S. citizenship next year, and he hopes that the political climate will one day allow him to play for a unified Cuban team in international competition.
"If we were given the chance to play together (those in Cuba and those who have left), as a team, I think the team would challenge for a spot in the World Cup from this region," he said.
Alonso has heard the talk of him as an MLS MVP candidate, and says it would be welcomed but that he doesn't think about it much. It would be great, he said, but winning a championship matters more.
He's also aware of those who label him the heart of the team.
"That makes me happy," he said, "because it shows that the people see and enjoy the way I play. That I'm all about getting wins for Seattle."