Not every team in Major League Soccer could lose a player the caliber of Steve Zakuani and still approach the playoffs with the goal of winning MLS Cup.
Of those, even fewer would be able to withstand the loss of a player the ilk of Mauro Rosales just weeks before the playoffs.
The Sounders FC has done just that in compiling an 18-7-9 record with the highest scoring team in MLS.
One big reason for that has been the play of Alvaro Fernandez.
The Uruguayan midfielder came to the Sounders FC fresh off a run to the semifinals of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa and made an immediate impact, even while not fitting entirely with the club that had already played half its season by the time he joined in August. He notched two goals and one assist in 12 appearances, but only started in four matches, playing behind Zakuani and Sanna Nyassi.
This year, he started 23 matches and ratcheted up his output to nine goals, second on the team to Fredy Montero.
That production has softened the blow of losing Zakuani all season and, with the emergence of Lamar Neagle, allows Seattle to play without changing much of their approach when Rosales isn’t on the field. The versatility of Fernandez to be able to switch sides of the midfield with ease also allows Schmid to pair him with any other outside midfielder on the roster.
“I just try to adapt to the circumstances,” Fernandez said. “I’ve played most of the year on the left and that’s where I feel the most comfortable, but if I’m asked to play on the right hand side, that’s not a problem either. Mauro has different characteristics than Lamar and Roger, but they’ve all had great seasons. Whoever is in the game on Saturday will be great and hopefully we won’t feel the absence of Mauro.”
His goal-scoring bursts have also eased some pressure off the shoulders of Montero, the club’s all-time leading scorer with 34 career MLS goals. By supporting the strikers with scoring threats in the midfield, opposing defenses can’t focus all of their pressure on Montero and his strike partner.
“It’s good for the team,” Montero said. “You’re a dangerous team when you’re attacking – it doesn’t matter if you’re a forward. When a midfielder comes behind you, they can score too.”
Off the field, this season has been much different for Fernandez. Amidst finishing his club season in Chile, playing in the World Cup and joining the Sounders, he also was married and welcomed his first child last year.
This year, his wife and son spent nearly all season with him in Seattle, making him feel much more at home in a foreign land.
However, his family returned to Uruguay in recent weeks to spend some time with his extended family. While he misses his wife and young son, Fernandez can also laugh a bit about his situation.
“I’m sleeping a lot,” he smiled. “So I’m feeling good.”
A well-rested Fernandez could prove highly important for the Sounders FC as they take on Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference semifinals beginning Saturday at 7 pm (Pacific) at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. For Fernandez and the Sounders, it’s just the next step toward a larger goal.
“It’s been a great season on a personal level and on the team level,” he said. “We’re trying to close it with a golden touch.”