Kasey Keller saved a first-half penalty kick in the Sounders scoreless draw with Real Salt Lake Thursday night at Qwest Field — and he will grab the headlines.
But a player who should get equal man-of-the-match billing is defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso. In a scrappy and disjointed match, Alonso stood out for all the reasons that soccer purists detest. He scrapped. He battled. He tackled. He chased. He won balls, he broke up passes, and he helped to close down one of the best teams in Major League Soccer. In short, his role is to break up the flowing beauty of soccer; he is as effective and brutal as a paid assassin.
So much for the attacking trio of Javiar Morales, Robbie Findley and Alvaro Saborio — some of the most respected attacking players in the MLS. They are a big reason the defending MLS Cup Champions have been unbeaten in 22 consecutive home games and now sit second in the Western Conference, just one point behind the Galaxy and Crew in the Supporters’ Shield race.
But Alonso shut down the Salt Lake strike force. He extinguished their creative fires, broke up their elegant passing, forced them to stumble when they wanted to dance, and stifled their ability to shoot on goal. Salt Lake only had seven shots on goal — none from Morales.
He had help, of course, beginning with Keller, who made two crucial saves including the penalty kick. A solid back four, anchored by Jeff Parke and Patrick Ianni, certainly contributed to the cause. The defensive line bent under the blistering speed of Findley, and were dazzled by the trickery of Morales, but it never broke or lost its way.
Keller praised the slight-framed Cuban refugee, who he calls “bulldog.” He believes that Seattle’s recent run of success has as much to do with Alonso returning from injury as it does with Fredy Montero’s resurgence, Freddie Ljungberg’s departure or with the arrival of the new designated players. “Ossie (Alonso) continues to play great,” Keller said. “It’s no coincidence that we have been winning since his return.”
Alonso stifled one of the best creative midfielders in the league — Morales. In a match Coach Sigi Schmidt called “disjointed” and “disappointing,” the Cuban bulldog snuffed out the deception and trickery of Morales, who is known for his silky passing, technical mastery and penetrating vision. The bulldog offered another perspective of the match — an unglamorous and gritty version predicated on hustle, hard work and cleaning up his teammates messes. The role of defensive midfielder is a dirty job but Alonso is one of its master craftsman.
“I thought Ossie’s play was good,” Schmid said. “He covers and fills a lot of gaps for us at midfield. I thought he did a pretty good job of containing Morales. I don’t think Morales did a whole lot to hurt us tonight so I thought he did a good job there. Defensively we were okay with a couple of exceptions.”
Except for the three-goals-in-11-minutes-lapse at New England, Seattle’s defense has been more than okay since Alonso’s return. Before the New England debacle, the Sounders’ defense set a club record 379-minute scoreless streak in August. “Alonso was great tonight,” said defender Parke, who admitted his performance could have been better (his trip of Findley in the box led to the PK). “He reads the game better than most. He’s a garbage guy who cleans up all the messes. He did a good job of cutting off the passes and getting stuck in.”
And though the Sounders’ offense clearly sputtered against one of the league’s top teams, it did battle Salt Lake to a draw and kept the team in the hunt for a wild-card playoff berth. “I think we battled and we fought, but I don’t think we played great soccer tonight so it was a little disappointing from that regard because I know we have more in us,” Schmid said. “I’m still proud of the fact that we’ve played what’s probably the best team in the league twice now and have tied them twice.”
For that, thank the Cuban bulldog. He got stuck in and Salt Lake’s vaunted strike force is happy to leave Seattle for easier pickings.