SEATTLE – Often there’s little meaning in a soccer jersey number.
In the 19th century, it wasn’t even a choice. Shirts were assigned by position based on how the lineup was written down – hence goalkeepers primarily wearing jersey No. 1.
But there’s always been a significance in jersey No. 6 in Seattle.
Historically, No. 6 is assigned to the defensive midfielder. For the Sounders, that position was defined by Ozzie Alonso from the club’s inaugural Major League Soccer season in 2009 to his departure as a free agent in 2018. So entwined are the number and player, teammates had to adjust to seeing a new man in the No. 6 jersey when Joao Paulo signed in January 2020.
“I started to hear more about him and understand the history that he built within the club,” said Joao Paulo, as translated from Portuguese, about researching and scouting Alonso along with other players in MLS.
“He’s a player that’s very well respected.”
In a 10-year stint as Sounders captain, Alonso helped the club win the Supporters’ Shield (2014), first MLS Cup (2016) and four U.S. Open Cups (2009-11, 2014).
Monday night, past and present will face each other in the Western Conference final. Alonso, in his second season with Minnesota United, is attempting to replicate his run in Seattle by leading the Loons to their first MLS Cup in club history. Joao Paulo aims to help Seattle stop Minnesota as the Sounders continue to form a modern MLS dynasty.
The winner will face the Columbus Crew, a 1-0 winner over the New England Revolution in Sunday’s Eastern Conference final, in the MLS Cup Dec. 12 in Columbus, Ohio.
“This was one of my main objectives, to get to a final and be in position to be chasing a title,” Joao Paulo said of signing with Seattle after a stint with Botafogo in his native Brazil. “Rather than looking at the competition, we need to look at what we need to do and recognize our own strength. I believe we are strong for this match.”
Monday is the first meeting between the sides in 2020. MLS shut down in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. When the league resumed regular-season play in August, it regionalized games to limit travel and possible exposure to the virus, so Minnesota and Seattle haven’t played each other.
The last game between the clubs was a 1-0 Sounders win against the Loons on Decision Day in 2019 at Lumen Field, where Seattle recognized Alonso before the match.
“(Ozzie’s) going to be up for the game,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said of Monday’s conference championship. “He knows what it takes to win in the playoffs, but he’s just one player. It’s reflected overall in the entire team. (Minnesota coach) Adrian (Heath) has done a great job in getting them to believe, getting them to understand that they are a good team.”
Fourth-seeded Minnesota returns with a stronger offensive attack that will put focus on Alonso and Joao Paulo in the midfield. The Loons appear to have the momentum with their 10-game unbeaten streak, including outscoring their past three opponents by a combined 9-0.
The visitors advanced to the conference championship by upsetting top-seeded Sporting Kansas City 3-0 on the road Thursday. The goals were scored in a 12-minute span in the opening half.
Loons attacker Kevin Molino is the obvious threat. He plays from the left wing like Sounders forward Jordan Morris, and Molino has scored two goals in each of his past three matches.
Seattle has lost just once in 12 matches at home this season but has only recently stitched together complete games characteristic of its status as the defending MLS Cup champion.
Team captain Nico Lodeiro is the maestro of the Rave Green’s offensive attack, with Morris and Raul Ruidiaz as targets. It was Lodeiro’s corner kick to defender Shane O’Neill that advanced Seattle to the Western Conference final, O’Neill scoring the winning goal on a header in the 49th minute at home against FC Dallas on Tuesday.
“It took us a little bit longer, we didn’t quite have that little patch right before the playoffs started, we weren’t great,” Schmetzer said in comparing his team’s performance against Minnesota. “When you get to this stage of the playoffs, it’s the mental side of your games – here again, this is where I think Adrian has done a great job – they’re a mentally strong team.
“(Minnesota) could’ve gone down, they could’ve taken a goal. Sporting Kansas City was all over them, they didn’t fold. They actually came back and said, ‘OK, let’s change gears here a little bit, let’s see what we can do.’ And the mental aspect of playoff games is where the games are won or lost.”
Joao Paulo said he’s looking forward to Monday’s Western Conference final because of how he and possible defensive midfielder Cristian Roldan could impact the match with their play in transition as talented scorers. Joao Paulo has scored twice in his MLS debut season and recorded five assists.
The Sounders also have Gustav Svensson to pair with Joao Paulo. Svensson was recently medically cleared to rejoin training after being called up to play for his Sweden national team last month. Svensson hasn’t started for the Sounders since a 1-1 draw against the Los Angeles Galaxy on Nov. 4.
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