NOTE: This is a feature in the October edition of Sounders Monthly. It is available free-of-charge at The NINETY, GuestLink Services locations, Soccer Celebration and Membership Central. You can also access it on the Sounders Mobile App.
It has been a little more than 10 years since the life-changing decision.
Osvaldo Alonso made the difficult choice a decade ago of defecting from Cuba to the United States, knowing such a move would mean leaving his family behind, but hoping that it would lead to a better life.
All Alonso has done since, as far as his profession goes, is piece together a successful career with the Seattle Sounders that is littered with accomplishments and championships – a career that has made him not only one of the best defensive midfielders in MLS history, but quite possibly the best defensive midfielder in MLS history.
Alonso is currently in his ninth season with the Sounders and continues to be as influential and consistent as ever. The hard-nosed veteran has started the majority of the club’s games this season, providing it with his trademark bite, range, energy and uncompromising effort while also adding the occasional offensive contribution.
There is no denying that the 31-year-old from San Cristóbal, Cuba, who has one goal and three assists in 2017, has made a name for himself in Seattle with his tenacious attitude and style of play. Still, it is not just his entire body of work that draws admiration from those in the organization and across the league.
“It’s an amazing story when you look at how it all happened for him in the beginning and how he came to America and the bravery he showed,” says Sounders Vice President of Soccer & Sporting Director Chris Henderson. “Just the off the field part is an amazing story, and so is what he has been able to do as a player and get to the level that he is now. I think he has been one of the major contributors for us and almost the heartbeat of our team for all these years.”
Alonso’s time in Seattle has been filled with highs, but his road to get there was not easy. Born in baseball-crazed Cuba, Alonso began playing soccer at a young age through his father’s influence. The elder Alonso played soccer in their native land and instilled an intrinsic love for kicking a ball, rather than swinging at it, in his son.
The Sounders’ captain thoroughly enjoyed playing soccer as a kid in his home country, but back then he was not the aggressive and intimidating enforcer that he is today. Instead, he was a wide-eyed attacker who enjoyed getting forward and putting the ball in the back of the net.
“I played forward when I was really young, and then little by little I dropped further on the field,” says Alonso. “I had a moment where I played as a No. 10, and then I came into the Under-20 Cuba national team as a wide midfielder and then when I got into the senior national team I started playing as a No. 6.
“[The transition] was difficult at first, because as a player you always like to score goals or always be involved in the plays leading up to goals. But little by little I got accustomed to the position, to what I had to do as a player in that position, and all I did was think about what’s best for my teams, so that’s where I ended up.”
Alonso’s full embrace to play in a holding midfielder role allowed him to become a starting player on Cuba’s squad for the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup, which was held, as is customary, in the United States. It is during that tournament when Alonso, who was 21 at the time, made the admittedly difficult decision to defect.
He did so while the team took a trip to Walmart in Houston, Texas, slipping away while his compatriots were distracted shopping. He eventually found his way to Miami and then after a short time pursued playing professionally again in the United States.
Landing with the Charleston Battery in the USL First Division in 2008, Alonso impressed in his debut season. The Sounders were especially intrigued by the young Cuban, as they saw the type of talent and potential that could make him a key part of their plans for years to come.
“We played against him in the USL days and knew what a quality player he was,” says Henderson, who back then was preparing Seattle to make the jump into MLS for its first season in the top division in 2009. “I think being able to bring him and kind of build the team down the spine was good. We knew we had Alonso coming, we knew we had Fredy Montero and Freddie Ljungberg, so you knew that you could build a very good team leading into the expansion draft with those signings.
“We felt that Ozzie was going to be a guy that we could rely upon in the middle of the park, and it ended up playing out that way.”
Did it ever.
Alonso has been a staple for Seattle since the 2009 MLS campaign, holding club records in minutes, matches played and starts, He has also achieved plenty both on individual and collective fronts, including winning six significant pieces of hardware, being named to four MLS All-Star teams and making the cut for the league’s Best XI once.
The career Alonso has carved out would be considered successful if it were to end today, but there is still plenty of tread left on his tires and more that he wants to achieve. Namely, lifting more pieces of silverware.
“I think the best moments I’ve had in my career are when I’ve won trophies,” says Alonso. “Those are the moments that are most important to me in my career, because they are moments of happiness and a reward for all the sacrifice done in a season or tournament. To finish a competition with a trophy – winning the U.S. Open Cup, winning the Supporters’ Shield, winning MLS Cup – those are the best moments I’ve experienced as a professional here in Seattle.”
If there was one moment Alonso enjoyed more than most, however, it was helping the Sounders claim their first MLS Cup last year. Seattle hoisted the trophy on a bitterly cold December night in Canada, defeating Toronto FC on penalty kicks after playing to a scoreless draw.
Alonso went the distance in that match and helped prevent his side from falling behind by limiting the attacking prowess of players like Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. While that was impressive all on its own, making it even more so was the fact that Alonso battled a left knee injury picked up just a couple weeks prior. In fact, he required eight painkiller injections – four before kickoff and four at halftime – just to fight through the discomfort and make it to the finish line in the final.
“It took him almost two months to recover after that game, to give you more of an idea of how tough he was playing through what he got,” says Sounders General Manager & President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey. “The most famous injury during the playoffs is probably Bill Russell with the Celtics, and you could argue Ozzie is the MLS version of that by suiting up and saying, ‘I’m going to play no matter what.’
“To be clear, he was influential in the final. Not just hobbling around and getting through, but being part of a group that keeps a shutout for 120 minutes under some pretty significant pressure and wins our first championship. Ozzie will probably be in the Sounders’ memory forever.”
Alonso is also likely to be in MLS’s history forever. His illustrious career in Seattle has seen him win that MLS Cup in 2016, one Supporters’ Shield, and four U.S. Open Cups. His achievements, level of play, longevity and consistency rank him up there with the very best defensive midfielders the league has had all-time, including Chris Armas, Kyle Beckerman, Shalrie Joseph and Pablo Mastroeni.
While Alonso does not care too much about whether he ends up being considered the greatest of all time at his position in MLS, his case will continue to grow the more trophies he adds to his resume. Given that he has no plans to retire any time soon and still has a burning desire to win, he stands a good shot at that.
Even if he does not prevail in another championship game, the Seattle mainstay has already achieved more than most could have thought when he came onto the MLS scene a decade ago. He has probably also fulfilled his own individual goals.
“I want people to remember me as someone that gave their best every time they were on the field, that fought hard,” says Alonso. “I want people to remember me as someone that came to the United States from a country that wasn’t a soccer-driven country and with sacrifice and effort accomplished what he wanted: play soccer, make his name known and give it his all.
“I hope to be an example for lots of kids and lots of people throughout the world, be it in Cuba, the United States, wherever. That when they hear my name they remember a person who started from nothing and made it and accomplished a lot of things in this country.”
There are still a few more chapters to be written before Alonso hangs up his cleats, but there is no denying that his time in the United States has been fruitful. After all, he has plenty of memorable performances, a half-dozen championships and a successful career with the Sounders to prove it.
“In MLS, the first 20 years of the league, he will be a player that’s talked about,” says Henderson. “When you talk about important players that help teams win, he’s one of the names you have to mention. He’ll definitely have a legacy in MLS and his name will be talked about for years to come.”