Given a wider lens, the Sounders’ 0-0 draw against Sporting Kansas City on May 24 was relatively routine. It certainly doesn’t stand out in a broader sense. It was early in the season, lost in the wash of Seattle’s summer’s doldrums, and it occurred before the raft of new signings revitalized the team for the postseason push.
Since Pineda joined the team before the start of the 2014 season, Pineda and Alonso have been inseparable as arguably the finest one-two possession combo in MLS. Pineda turns 33 later this month, and Alonso crests 30 in November, and yet the pace was as torrid as ever as the curtain peeled back on the 2015 season. Alonso and Pineda hadn’t lost a step.
Opta began tracking advanced stats on MLS matches in 2009. Since that time, no team in MLS attempted more passes than Seattle’s 425 over the first 45 minutes against the Colorado Rapids days after the draw against Sporting KC. That completed a run of three consecutive games in which the Sounders piled up an unbelievable 2,035 combined passes.
The beating heart of that was the connection between Pineda and Alonso. Against Sporting KC, the two combined for a sky-high 232 passes, which set the high water mark for passes between two players in MLS this season. That broke the record they’d set a week earlier, and the team was about to break its total passing numbers it set that night a week later.
Father Time will come for Pineda and Alonso eventually. But at their best, as they’ve often been together this season, they’re in no rush to end one of the most natural central midfield duos the league has ever seen.
So natural, in fact, that the two rarely even pregame strategy.
“We never talk about it,” Pineda said. “We don’t talk about, ‘Hey, you have to do this or run this way.’ I think it’s more like an understanding that we have.”
Pineda knows how rare that is. He’s played with a bevy of top players over the course of his lengthy club and national team career with Mexico. Two of those - Patricio Araujo at Guadalajara and Gerardo Torrado with the national team - drew special mention. Pineda developed connections with those players too, but by his own estimation, he’s never played with anyone quite like Alonso.
“With respect to the rest, I think Ozzie is the best midfielder I’ve played with,” Pineda said.
The sentiment flows both ways. Alonso is markedly more patient with Pineda on the field, and before Alonso’s injury woes hit in June, the two helped knit together three goals of 18 passes or more through the first three months of the season.
To understand what that looks like, it helps to look at how the Sounders look with those two directing traffic. This is how the midfield took shape under Pineda and Alonso’s care in a comprehensive 3-0 rout of Vancouver on Sept. 19 on the road. It’s instructive for a few reasons.
The first thing to note is that Alonso and Pineda found each other 34 times for passes. No other connection matched that, or even came close. But the more important thing to note for the purposes of tempo is how many horizontal lines you see jutting toward the sideline. The team is markedly less vertical when Alonso and Pineda are on the field, which gives them a distinctly patient approach that almost always bosses possession.
Pay attention too to the general flow of positioning. Pineda, who’s as comfortable roping in over-the-top balls from deep as Andrea Pirlo, interchanges with Alonso dropping between the split center backs when teams press. That gives a ball-steady midfielder on possession in a high-risk quadrant of the field and also helps key possession going the other way. The beautiful part about Alonso’s role is he has the energy to bust up attacks as the terrier No. 6, but he can perform these same duties too.
What Seattle loses in defensive spadework with Pineda on the field, it gains the advantage of keep-away. The two have gradually become more vertical as the season’s progressed and the onus on more direct service to Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins has increased, but a tiger never loses his stripes.
“Sometimes yes, we want to play the possession game everyone is talking about,” Pineda said. “But also at the same time, we want to play forward quickly to Oba and Clint so they can create the goals they do up front. It’s a little mix of that.”
The two have only started together 12 times this season due to various team selection and injury issues, but Seattle’s effectiveness with the fearsome duo is unquestionable. When Pineda and Alonso start together, Seattle is 6-3-3.
For Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid, the midseason introduction of Erik Friberg wasn’t a replacement, but rather another depth option for the stretch run. Friberg offers a more vertical pairing for Alonso, making Seattle more of a hot rod than a tank throwing shells from deep. Either way, Seattle is in great shape with the postseason just around the bend.
“I think all three of those guys are important players for us,” Schmid said. “Pineda is a guy who’s a consummate professional. When he’s on the field he’s focused on the game. Him and Ozzie have a good relationship together, and they talk a lot during games. Alonso has had a little bit of an up-and-down season because of the injuries, but he’s an important cog to our team. Friberg is another midfielder who maybe gives us that energy and maybe finds those forward passes maybe a little bit quicker. Everyone brings his own unique qualities and abilities onto the field.”