His head coach was all too happy to play coy about the chances that talismanic midfielder Osvaldo Alonso steps onto CenturyLink Field in the Western Conference finals, second leg, but Brad Evans pilled the beans.
“Ossie’s recovery has been great this week,” said the Sounders’ captain on a national conference call with reporters Friday regarding the clash of rivals Sunday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) with hosting rights to the MLS Cup final up for grabs. “That adds a boost to us. Perhaps that’s more mental than anything.”
The boost from Alonso, sidelined by hamstring problems in a first leg won by the Galaxy, 1-0, last week, would be spiritual and physical and emotional as well as mental. The Cuban defector nicknamed “Honey Badger” is the reigning team MVP for the past four seasons and pours staggering doses of range, desire, skill and soccer smarts into the mix every time he steps on the field.
“In the last four years, he’s been the top defensive midfielder in the league and someone who is invaluable to our team,” said Evans, who is seeking to repeat the 2008 MLS Cup title he won with Sigi Schmid, who pointedly informed the media this week that no longer will the Sounders publicly disseminate information regarding injuries and hasn’t confirmed that Alonso will play. It’s hard to find anyone buying into the subterfuge.
On the conference call, Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez’s effusive praise painted a vivid picture of what his presence means to his team. “I think Alonso definitely changes their team,” said Gonzalez. “He’s a big part of their team. He’s very instrumental to how they play and he’s crucial for them, because he’s all over the field. He runs everywhere, he makes tackles, he breaks plays up, and he also gets into the attack.
“When he steps on the field again, not only does he break up plays but he’s very capable of scoring goals. We just have to figure out a way to get around him and I’m sure we will.”
Pick your favorite metric or chart -- heat map, recoveries, interceptions, duels won, etc. -- and Alonso ranks highly. A pass completion percentage of 90.9 percent during the regular season overshadows his meager stats of no goals and two assists. Who has scored the only Sounders’ goal in three postseason games? Alonso got his head to a Marco Pappa free kick in the first leg against FC Dallas, a 1-1 tie that eventually pushed the Sounders into the next round on the away goals implemented by MLS this season.
Galaxy keeper Jaime Penedo stymied Seattle in the first leg on a few critical occasions. A bang-bang, double-save on Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins thwarted Seattle in the first half, and Penedo came off his line quickly to swat away a Dempsey chip after halftime. But Schmid pointed out in the conference call that while every coach wants his team to create more chances, he thinks the chances and goals will come in the second leg.
His comments echoed those of Dempsey after the 1-0 loss at StubHub Center. “We’ve still got everything to play for in the second game,” Dempsey said. “You would have to think that you would have to score to advance, so we’ve got to get goals. But at the same time keep playing the way we’re playing. We’re creating chances.”
One goal in three playoff games has the fans fretting, since a Galaxy away goal would require the Sounders to score three. But if Seattle can spin a shutout, any win by a margin of 2-0 or greater will get the job done.
“They have to pull out all the stops,” said Gonzalez. “They’re going to be at home so they’re not going to be sitting back. They’re going to be coming at us. It’s going to be a fast, intense game, because of the surface and because of what the game means; to play in an MLS Cup and it’s to host for the winner. I’m sure that Martins and Dempsey and company will be ready to play and they’re going to be good.”
The likely return of their warrior prince increases the confidence at all levels of Sounderland. His talents and intensity are ideally suited for a pressure-cooker game of the highest stakes possible. As Evans hinted, what he’s seen in training has convinced him of what will most likely be on display Sunday.
“He could have easily taken a break on things and taken it easy,” said Evans, “but the fact that he comes out every single day at training and competes and bleeds for the team, it’s a testament to the way he is.”