Seattle and Salt Lake shaped by stellar holding midfielders

Seattle and Salt Lake shaped by stellar holding midfielders

The Western Conference semifinal rivals have benefitted greatly from the acquisitions of two holding midfielders early in their respective team histories.

The Sounders FC and Real Salt Lake can both point to several transactions in their history that helped form their identities.

Both can also point to one position that they both made crucial acquisitions that have turned them into two of the top teams in Major League Soccer over the last four years – defensive midfielder.

The Sounders acquired Osvaldo Alonso from the Charleston Battery after the Cuban ran roughshod of the USL in 2008. He was an instant success and has grown into arguably the best at recovering possession in MLS. He has also been an All-Star each of the last two years.

Real Salt Lake traded Mehdi Ballouchy to their rival Colorado Rapids in exchange for Kyle Beckerman midway through the 2007 season and by the start of the 2008 season, head coach Jason Kreis named him captain. Kreis’ reward has been four straight All-Star nods for Beckerman and the 2009 MLS Cup.

Along the way, both have become fan favorites and a pair of the top midfielders in MLS. And while the title of their role may be defensive midfielder, they are important links to the attacking players as well.

“They each play an important role for their team in that they’re sort of the hub around the defensive effort in front of the back four, and also the first one sometimes to release the ball,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said.

For the Sounders, Alonso has been a rock in the middle of the midfield since the franchise’s first match against the New York Red Bulls in 2009. His importance to the team can be seen in their record when he is not on the field. In 2010, they went 3-6-1 in a 10-game stretch when he was out or limited because of a quad strain. Since then, he has become much more resilient, missing just one game in 2011 and four this season. They were 1-1-2 in games Alonso missed this season as the club has bettered their midfield depth over the years.

Salt Lake has been similarly reliant on Beckerman, going 4-5-3 over the last two seasons when he is not in the starting lineup. Combined with his central midfield partner, playmaker Javier Morales, they have been a tremendous duo in RSL’s diamond-shaped midfield.

While Alonso has plenty of respect for them, he is more focused on his own task than who is on the other side of the ball.

“Beckerman and Morales are very good players, but I do my job playing for my team,” Alonso said. “We play for us and do the best we can for the team.”

Alonso’s impact can be felt much more on the defensive end than his Salt Lake counterpart though. There, Alonso led the league in tackles won in 2011 by a comfortable margin and looks to have done it again in 2012.

That mentality is contagious within the Sounders.

“Ozzie’s a great competitor and what Ozzie brings to every game is his ability to compete and battle and fight for the ball,” Schmid said.

The matchup between Seattle and Salt Lake has been incredibly hotly contested in the last four years, with Salt Lake holding a slight edge at 4-3-4 in their 11 meetings, including playoffs.

No duo embodies the competitive nature of that budding rivalry than Alonso and Beckerman.

“I expect those guys are quality players, so they’re going to be ready to play,” Schmid said.

The first leg of the aggregate-goal series will be Friday at 7 pm Pacific at CenturyLink Field. The return leg will be on Thursday, November 8, at Rio Tinto Stadium.

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