Perhaps many felt Sounders FC was in trouble against the LA Galaxy last week when they found out Ozzie Alonso wouldn’t be playing. The Galaxy boasts a dangerous central midfield duo of Juninho and Steven Gerrard, while Alonso is one of the top defensive midfielders in MLS. Alonso had also missed the first leg of last year’s playoff series with LA, which ended in a 1-0 loss for Seattle.
With Alonso again on the shelf, the Sounders turned to an unlikely combination of Erik Friberg and Andy Rose, who had played together in the central midfield just once prior to the Galaxy match. It was the first career start in the MLS Cup Playoffs for Rose. Friberg hadn’t played in a postseason game for the Sounders since his first stint with the team back in 2011.
And yet, it was Friberg who scored the winner to give Seattle a 3-2 victory in the Knockout Round. That same duo was out there against top-seeded FC Dallas over the weekend, when the Sounders won 2-1 to take a one-goal edge into Sunday’s second leg of the Conference Semifinals.
“Like all relationships in soccer, it takes time,” Rose said of his partnership with Friberg. “But right off the bat, I thought we had a pretty good thing going. …We’ve played twice together and we’ve won both games against two very good teams, two of the best teams in the league. He’s certainly helped me out a lot, and I feel very comfortable playing next to him.
“I think over the course of two games, there’s been improvement. In both matches we’ve tweaked some things at halftime, had conversations together to figure out ways to be better in the second half. And in both games, that’s kind of worked out well for us.”
Rose and Friberg both spent parts of the regular season playing on the wing, a spot they’re not particularly comfortable in. Heading into the postseason, they were struggling to earn playing time at any position – Rose hadn’t started a game since Aug. 22 and Friberg was in the lineup for just two of the final five regular-season matches. Instead it was Gonzalo Pineda who often earned the nod from Head Coach Sigi Schmid.
Choosing the starting central midfield duo this past week was admittedly difficult for Schmid. But he felt Rose matched up well with Gerrard, and once he saw how well the pair performed against LA, there was no need for Schmid to make another change.
“I thought Rose had a good game on Wednesday, so we wanted to come back with him,” Schmid said after Sunday’s victory. “Friberg is pretty good at finding people and playing balls forward, so that’s why we played him. Plus, the ground that they cover is pretty significant. Rose helps us in the air defensively, so that’s another dimension that he brings.”
Rose and Friberg improved their passing accuracy from one game to the next: they both completed 77 percent of their passes against LA and then finished with an accuracy of 79 and 88 percent versus Dallas, respectively. Friberg nearly scored for the second straight game on Sunday, curling a long-distance shot just wide of the post in the 33rd minute.
With Alonso still day-to-day due to a groin injury, there’s a chance the same duo could be relied upon again this weekend in Frisco, Texas.
The Sounders are still four games from accomplishing their goal, but these last two playoff matches have been special for Rose. The crowds at CenturyLink Field were electric and against the Galaxy, the fourth-year midfielder battled one of the players he grew up idolizing.
“Growing up in England, there were a few players that every young English player sort of wanted to be like. And Steven Gerrard was certainly one of them,” Rose said. “He had such a fantastic, storied career with Liverpool and as the England captain. Stepping on the pitch with him was a great moment in my career.”