Osvaldo Alonso: The MVP case for the Seattle Sounders’ defensive midfielder

MLS awards season approaches. In between handing out the smaller awards that get less publicity, the league’s collective eyes will shift toward the holy grail: the MVP.

Twelve teams have produced players who’ve won the league’s ultimate individual honor, including two (Tampa Bay and Miami) that haven’t existed for 15 years. The Seattle Sounders notably do not have a player on that prestigious list that features names like Landon Donovan, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Preki and Carlos Valderrama.

That should change this year. I’m calling Osvaldo Alonso the league’s most valuable player.

There are a couple different ways to look at this award. The first is simply to take the best player performing at the highest level over the course of the season. But that is too simplistic and doesn’t fully shade in the entirety of an MVP’s job description. It also then becomes impossible to compare across positions. It’s far easier to spot a high-performing forward separate of any other trends than it is to do the same with a center back or goalkeeper. The metrics are simply too imbalanced.

The other litmus is more holistic, but it’s also a bit harder to pin down without a deeper dive. The one I prefer to use is which player is most irreplaceable to the best team. If you took out a single pillar of each of the league’s best teams - performance is important too - which would crumble most completely?

You can have Sebastian Giovinco and Bradley Wright-Phillips and the rest. But I’m taking Alonso.

The reason Alonso will always struggle to garner MVP votes at the end of the season is for mostly superficial reasons. As a true No. 6, he doesn’t show up in highlight reels, and he doesn’t score or assist all that often (although he has tied his career high in goals this year with three and set a career high in assists with four). But he does almost everything else, and a simple eye test reveals the simple truth that the Sounders simply don’t operate well without him.

There’s only one example to that effect this year, but it’s hard to outrun. With Alonso sidelined due to card accumulation, the Sounders were played off the park in a 3-0 loss to Sporting KC on July 24. That loss was then-coach Sigi Schmid’s last stand and marked the departure point for the team’s current trip up the standings and very likely into the postseason.

With Alonso on the bench, the Sounders’ midfield ceased functioning.

There is no one way to accurately measure how, or even when, a midfielder is bossing any single game. In truth, it’s an amalgamation of several factors and metrics, and simply sitting down and watching a game will give you a better overall indication of whether a defensive midfielder is having himself a day or not. That said, we can pile up a few factors that’ve led Alonso into what’s easily been his best season as a professional and the most impactful season for any player in the league.

The first is raw passing data. It’s an incomplete picture, but passes tell you in one blow how many touches a player is getting, how many times he’s looking to circulate possession and how successful he’s been at those things. And at least in terms of calming games down and setting the table for the front line, there is no better player in MLS than Alonso.

First, look at total passes. Alonso is almost 400 passes ahead of the next-closest player. Four. Hundred. There’s no precedent for this.

Osvaldo Alonso: The MVP case for the Seattle Sounders’ defensive midfielder -

But that ultimately doesn’t matter if they aren’t meaningful, right? So look at his distribution numbers. Specifically, look at the accuracy.

Osvaldo Alonso: The MVP case for the Seattle Sounders’ defensive midfielder -

This means of Alonso’s unmatched number of passes this year, only around one in every 10 has been incomplete. I want you to stew on that for a minute and think about what it means for a team hellbent on building attacks through the midfield. Alonso is more protective of the ball and more mistake averse when picking out players than any player in MLS. Period. End of story.

His job is circulating and building at the base. Yes, many of his passes are squared, but part of his job is shifting the point of attack, digging the ball out of contested phone booths to restart the move forward and picking small openings to create for others. In this, he’s unmatched in the league.

He’s also been vital to a defense that’s rarely had reason to blame Alonso for any of its shortcomings. He is currently fourth in MLS in tackles per game, and he’s won 74 percent of his challenges, a higher percentage than anyone in the top 10. He’s also been healthier and more disciplined than at any point in his career. He hasn’t missed a single game through injury this year, and while he’s accumulated seven yellow cards, he’s yet to pick up a red.

It’s easy to say that goals ultimately matter above all else, and so the players who score them and directly create them are valuable above the rest. And you’d have to debate that if you come at it from another angle. But neither of those things are part of Alonso’s job title, and I think there’s a robust argument to be made that he’s better at his job than any goal-creator or goalscorer is at his.

If we’re judging off history, Alonso probably won’t win the MVP award. It’s an attacker’s award, the league generally preferring to dole it out to more exciting forward players. But Alonso’s role in this Sounders setup is more crucial than any other player to his team, and his individual season is without match.



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