It may just be preseason, but Blackbaud Stadium is expecting a sellout crowd on Saturday when Sounders FC and the Charleston Battery meet in the Carolina Challenge Cup.
A big reason for that outstanding turnout is the return of one of the most revered players in the history of the Battery, Seattle midfielder Osvaldo Alonso. And while the excitement over Alonso’s return is palpable among the fans in Charleston, it is equally thrilling for Alonso, who hasn’t been able to hide his exhilaration since the Sounders arrived in South Carolina on Wednesday.
“It’s been a long time. I’m very happy be here and see my old friends and my old town. This city gave me the opportunity to start playing professionally in the U.S. They gave me a good chance to grow my professional career and I’m very happy to come back,” he smiled. “It’s a special place to me.”
He comes back to Charleston a much different player than the one that arrived nearly six years ago.
In 2008, Battery Head Coach Michael Anhaueser was bringing in one Cuban player, Lester More, and just before his trial he learned of another Cuban worth checking out. By the end of his first training session, Anhaueser knew that Alonso was something special and signed him as soon as he could.
Alonso was instantly among the best players in the USL. From the obscurity of the Cuban National Team, he burst onto the scene after his 2007 defection during the CONCACAF Gold Cup and was named USL’s Rookie of the Year after scoring four goals to help the Battery to a fifth place finish in the league.
More impressive, though, was Charleston’s run in the U.S. Open Cup.
Alonso led the Battery to the final, where it lost to D.C. United. Along the way, though, Charleston earned wins over the Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas before ousting the Sounders – then in the USL as well – in a shootout in the semifinals.
“Ozzie was as influential with us as he is with the Sounders. The absolute reason why we had success was because he was at the center of the park. That Cup run separated him and put him on a pedestal,” Anhaueser said. “It wasn’t just Seattle that was after him. He dominated.”
At the MLS level, Alonso has continued his growth, earning MLS Best XI honors in 2012 and has been voted team MVP for four consecutive seasons. He is the club’s all-time leader in starts and minutes and has established himself as one of the league’s best holding midfielders, earning an All-Star selection each of the last three seasons.
That success, and the Designated Player contract that has come with it, has provided inspiration to players on the Battery. That list includes three other Cuban players and a fourth that is in on trial who have long admired Alonso for his courage along with his tenacity on the field.
“They’re trying to follow in his footsteps. He has really excelled and is taking it to another level and they are trying to make it where he is,” Anhaueser said. “That door was always there. What he’s done is make it more recognizable.”
On Friday, Alonso met with some of those Cuban players at a luncheon at Blackbaud Stadium, also seeing fans and staff from the Battery for the first time since he left for Seattle following the 2008 season.
It was a warm reception, but one that will surely be surpassed on Saturday when his name is announced in the Seattle starting lineup in the Carolina Challenge Cup match.
“It’s been great. I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” Alonso continued to beam. “For me, it’s going to be a special couple of weeks here.”
Kickoff for Saturday’s match is scheduled for 4:15 pm PT and it will be streamed on SoundersFC.com.