Since the Sounders embarked on their 12-match unbeaten streak, leading to a 10th consecutive playoff berth, there has been ample debate about what exactly sparked the club’s historic turnaround.
The foundation for the team’s success has been its resilient defense, a hallmark of the Brian Schmetzer era. And at the other end of the pitch, the likes of Nicolás Lodeiro and Raúl Ruidíaz have fashioned the Sounders into an exciting, two-way force capable of making a third consecutive run to MLS Cup.
Linking Seattle’s stout defense and dynamic attack is the midfield double-pivot of Osvaldo Alonso and Gustav Svensson, who’ve been critical to the Sounders rattling off a 13-2-1 record during the second half of the season.
Traditionally speaking, a double-pivot is comprised of a No. 6, a pure defensive midfielder, and a No. 8, who occupies a box-to-box role, with both positioned ahead of the back four and behind the three-man attacking midfield.
The Sounders organization views the double-pivot a bit differently, as they prefer to field two players that are each a No. 6/8 hybrid. While Svensson and Alonso are typically viewed as pure defensive midfielders, each possesses a level of comfort on the ball and range of passing to keep things ticking when Seattle is in possession.
When asked in a post-match press conference about the impact of Alonso, Schmetzer was effusive in his praise.
“We’re happy Ozzie is playing at a high level, and he is absolutely a big part of the reason why [we’ve been successful],” he said. “Taking that one step further, you’ve got a guy next to him in Gustav Svensson who has done extremely well.”
Alonso and Svensson provide the structure for the more inventive players ahead of them to create orchestrated chaos as they unbalance the opponent’s defensive shape with complex passing patterns. If the sequence breaks down, the attacking players can rely on Seattle’s double-pivot to switch the point of attack or recycle possession. With Seattle enjoying plenty of success down the flanks, Alonso and Svensson have proven adept at drawing defensive pressure toward the middle of the field before quickly playing a diagonal pass to the wings for the Sounders to attack 2-v-1.
Alonso and Svensson's combined passing map from the Sounders' 4-0 home win against Colorado on September 29.
The pair have also been integral to making the Sounders attack more unpredictable. Svensson, who has established himself as a capable center back, can drop between Kim Kee-hee and Chad Marshall while the Sounders build, fluidly morphing Seattle's formation into a back-three. This enables the outside backs to push higher up the pitch, which pulls the opposition defenders wide and creates gaps for Víctor Rodríguez and Cristian Roldan to exploit, with Alonso serving as the lynchpin that links play.
“We’ve always pinched our wide midfielders in and have the outside backs create a lot of attacking threats for us,” Schmetzer said after the 3-1 home win over Sporting Kansas City on September 1. “That’s just who we are and what we do.”
The security and defensive cover afforded by Seattle’s double-pivot gives the wide players more freedom to attack with ingenuity, knowing that any mistakes will be cleaned up by the defensive midfielders behind them.
Svensson and Alonso's combined interceptions (blue), tackles (green), recoveries (orange), blocks (yellow) and clearances (purple) from the 1-0 road win over the Timbers on August 26.
When the team is defending they stay compact in the middle, cutting off incisive central passing lanes and forcing the opposition to attack down the flanks, which suits the Sounders. When the Seattle outside backs engage the other team’s wingers, either Alonso or Svensson will then shade to that side to create a double team as they regain possession.
The success of Svensson and Alonso provides a blueprint for how the Sounders can win on the road in the playoffs. Back on August 26, Seattle’s double-pivot gummed up the works on defense and helped the team maintain possession as the Rave Green eked out a 1-0 road win against the Portland Timbers - their first in Oregon since 2014.
When Alonso and Svensson have started together in the double-pivot, the team holds a 10-1-1 record (they also started together against the LA Galaxy in September, but the club was in a 4-4-2 formation, not the usual 4-2-3-1). With the Sounders on the precipice of the postseason, the structure and security they provide will be instrumental to reaching a third consecutive MLS Cup.