Ozzie Alonso was 21 when he walked away from a Houston Walmart in 2007, leaving behind a life in Cuba and everything he hadn’t stuffed into his backpack. The Minnesota United veteran midfielder never imagined where that decision to defect from his homeland would lead him these past 12 years.
It took him to 10 successful seasons in Seattle, where he accomplished individually and collectively just about everything possible in American soccer while leading the Sounders from expansion status to a MLS championship.
It now has taken him to yet another life in Minnesota, as a veteran leader for a team two years removed from expansion, seeking to make the same leap Alonso’s Seattle teams did long ago.
His two MLS lives converge Saturday at Allianz Field, where Alonso will face, for the first time, the team that he played for and that helped him develop his American soccer reputation.
“I never thought it would be like this,” Alonso said. “I’m very happy for everything I did in the U.S. I’m excited to be here now.”
The Sounders made a financial decision after last season to proceed without an aging player who was named an All-Star from 2011 through 2014. He was a 2012 MLS Best XI honoree, a team captain and 2016 MLS Cup champion and four-time U.S. Open Cup winner.
Seattle helped facilitate Alonso’s move to Minnesota on waivers, working with United management so it could obtain a 33-year-old who has been the league’s best defensive midfielder the past decade.
“I don’t think there’s been a more synonymous player for a club in the league than him,” United coach Adrian Heath said. “For 10 years, he wore his heart on his sleeve. He has been an incredible servant. I know from people with their club that they miss him dearly. We’re just glad we’ve got him. It’ll be a special day for him on the weekend.”
After he had accomplished so much in Seattle, Alonso has moved on to Minnesota, just as he walked on in 2007 when he defected while on tour with the Cuban national team. Then as now, he moved ahead without looking back.
“I came from Cuba with nothing, so being in Seattle 10 years I can do it again,” Alonso said. “I’m not afraid to start in a new place because when I came from Cuba, I was no English, no nothing. There was nothing for me, so I take it like I am.”
He now is the fierce, defensive-minded midfielder who the Loons lacked, an experienced two-way player whom they acquired to solidify a leaky defense that allowed 141 goals the past two seasons.
Like veteran newcomer Ike Opara, Alonso is a playoff-proven winner. He assumed United’s captaincy when Francisco Calvo was suspended for last week’s scoreless draw with L.A. Galaxy and then was not among the top 18 on Sunday in the Loons’ 1-0 victory over D.C. United.
“Ozzie is Ozzie,” Opara said. “You don’t question Ozzie. You don’t question his work ethic. He’s going to give 110 for 90 minutes. That’s a leader by example right there. I’m glad he’s on our side.”
He can play deep defensively, just in front of a reconfigured back line that hasn’t allowed a goal in two games. On Sunday, he played creator as well, sending ahead a ball from midfield that led to Angelo Rodriguez’s game-winning goal in the 82nd minute.
“He’s a better footballer than I thought he was,” Heath said. “We always knew he was good. I thought he was outstanding at the weekend again. Just his personality — great character, low maintenance, a great professional. He comes in, does his work and he wants to win.”
Alonso is what Heath and his teammates call a leader of few words.
“He doesn’t need to talk much,” midfield partner Jan Gregus said, “but when he speaks, it has weight and meaning.”
But he’s not one with few emotions. Nicknamed the “Honey Badger,” Alonso plays with a hard edge and a passion for a team that hopes to extend his career by managing his training time. He only trained lightly Tuesday, but that’s a long way from Saturday’s game.
‘He’s a pretty crazy, ultimate competitor as it is,” United defender Brent Kallman said. “Sometimes they have to hold him back in training because he wants to play, every day. I’m sure he’s got even more fuel for his fire for this one.”
Alonso arrived in Seattle in 2009 with nearly nothing and left a U.S. citizen with a growing family, having accomplished and experienced so much.
“I got a lot of memory,” Alonso said. “Ten years, I win the trophy there, everything. My family grew up there. My two daughters were born in Seattle. I’ve got good memories. It’s going to be special for me Saturday night. I’m very excited to play against them, but at the same time I need to relax because I don’t want my emotion to do something against me.”