SEATTLE – Seattle Sounders midfielder Osvaldo Alonso will miss his first league match of the season on Sunday at Sporting Kansas City.
Alonso, suspended one game for yellow-card accumulation, has played in all but 28 of Seattle’s 1,710 MLS minutes in 2016. Having spent most of the previous offseason on the trading block and with nagging questions about his durability, Alonso is as reliable as he’s ever been.
For as long as they’ve been an MLS club, there’s been a quiet understanding around the league that as Alonso goes, so go the Sounders.
Teammates call him the squad’s most important player, the glue holding everything together from his spot in the middle. Some within the club wonder what might have been, if they’d have finally broken through to MLS Cup, had Alonso been healthy for either of the last two postseasons.
So, how does one square Alonso’s career renaissance with the team’s collective struggles?
That’s the rub in assigning blame for Seattle’s 6-11-2 record, leaving it eight points back of seventh-place Sporting and nine points out of the playoff spots. Beyond whatever has happened to Nelson Valdez and Clint Dempsey’s struggle to carry over national-team form into league play, it’s not easy to pinpoint individual problem areas.
Scroll down the list of regular starters. Joevin Jones hasn’t exactly settled in at left back, but the defense still ranks in the top third of MLS in goals against. Jordan Morris hasn’t been Obafemi Martins, but that was an unrealistic expectation to begin with and he leads all rookies with seven league goals.
There have been some encouraging-if-modest steps forward from a handful of young players, from Cristian Roldan to Aaron Kovar. The veteran core might be showing its age, but few of them have genuinely lost it. Forward Herculez Gomez was able to hype teammate Chad Marshall as an All-Star Game snub earlier this week while maintaining a straight face.
No Sounder has been particularly good this season, but with the exception of Zach Scott’s disastrous second half in Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup loss, few of them have been straight-up bad, either.
If diagnosing what ills the team is complicated on a micro level, it’s less so when using a wider lens. The shift to a 4-3-3 formation and, more recently, a 4-2-3-1, has not worked. As a whole, this attacking core just doesn’t mesh.
Alonso has been so valuable throughout his Sounders tenure because his dirty work has freed up higher-profile stars to shine. With Valdez cursed, Seattle just doesn’t have enough of those players on the roster right now.
No matter how many ways one poses the question, what’s-wrong-with-the-Sounders conversations invariably circle back to the same answer: The team has not been able to cope with the unexpected departure of Martins to the Chinese Super League just weeks before the new season, and his absence has had a ripple effect.
The Sounders have missed his raw production, sure – 40 league goals and 23 assists in 66 games from 2013-15. But Martins’ tireless work rate and ability to soak up the attention of opposing defenses has also left a void.
“The puzzle has been more difficult because – at the start of the season with losing Oba, we really had the capability to bring in two players and we haven’t brought in those two players yet, it’s taken a long time – you’re missing pieces,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said this week. “Injuries and guys being gone for international tournaments, that took away some pieces, as well. It’s been more difficult.
“It’s difficult when you prepare one way going into the season and that immediately changes.”
Alonso’s absence will be keenly felt Sunday afternoon at Children’s Mercy Park. The defense will be slightly more exposed, the midfield slightly less steady. Going all the way back to the expansion season in 2009, Seattle plays more tentatively when Alonso isn’t on the field.
But though they’ve had 19 league games and half a year to adjust, it’ll still be Obafemi Martins whom the Sounders miss most of all.
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