Seattle – If perspective really is everything, then Minnesota United defender Ike Opara has seen teammate Ozzie Alonso from both sides now.
He competed against him twice a year during nine seasons together in MLS’ Western Conference.
“Great player, hated him,” Opara said. “Simple as that.”
Things change. Now the two defensive-minded players are teammates on a United team headed to the MLS playoffs for the first time. The Loons will clinch second place and potentially two home playoff games if they win Sunday in Alonso’s first return to Seattle, where he starred for a decade.
They could do so with a draw, too, if Houston beats the L.A. Galaxy.
“If there’s one guy you’d want to lead you into a game against Seattle, it’s Ozzie,” Opara said. “It’s always completely different when you’re on a team with a player you may not have liked. It’s great to have him in our colors, on our side.”
United gambled on Alonzo’s age (33) and legs when it acquired him on waivers from Seattle last winter and paid him nearly $700,000 in guaranteed compensation annually that the Sounders wouldn’t.
The move paid off. Alonso has started all 26 MLS games he has played this season and, from his defensive midfielder position, helped transform both United’s defense and its culture. A team that allowed 70 and 71 goals in its first two MLS seasons has 11 shutouts and allowed 42 goals with Alonso, Opara and goalkeeper Vito Mannone forming its defensive spine.
Ten memorable years in Seattle
Few MLS players have been identified with one franchise for as long as Alonso, who signed with Seattle in 2009 two years after he walked away from his Cuban national team at a Houston-area Walmart and defected.
He won one MLS Cup, a Supporters’ Shield and four U.S. Open Cups with Seattle and became beloved by Sounders fans who called him “The Honey Badger” for his tenacity. He also became hated by Opara and other opponents for performances that, depending on your perspective, were driven or borderline dirty. Seattle never missed the playoffs with Alonso.
On Saturday, Alonso trained with teammates at the Sounders’ facility and was greeted afterward with squeals from his young daughters..
“Ten years, I never spent a night in a hotel here,” he said. “So to come here, take a bus, go to training is a little bit weird. But you have to go forward.”
Alonso faced his former mates for the first time in May during a 1-1 draw at Allianz Field. Afterward he had dinner with good friend Nicolas Lodeiro.
“He’s such a good player and nice person, you can’t talk bad about him,” former Seattle teammate Cristian Roldan told reporters last week.
But going back to Seattle to play a Sounders team that United has never defeated, with so much at stake, will be different.
“In a 90-minute game, we’re not friend, we’re enemy,” Alonso said. “Off the field, we’re friend.”
United coach Adrian Heath rested Alonso last Sunday against LAFC, with both Alonso’s sore body and his return to Seattle in mind.
“I’m really looking forward to the reception he gets because he deserves it,” Heath said.
‘I give everything I have’
Alonso leads his team with his feet, his fire, but usually with few words, although the ones he chooses often have purpose and volume.
He also has led by wearing the United captain’s band on his arm since the team traded Francisco Calvo in May.
“I tried to lead by example every time I step on field,” Alonso said. “I give everything I have to win the game. That pushes people to play for you. Every time you play, give it everything you have and people next to you give the same thing.”
Heath coached against him for four MLS seasons but didn’t know him until he arrived last winter and promised his new team would win and make the playoffs. Opara battled him all these years and said he didn’t know he was such a gifted technical player. Opara calls him hard-nosed and blue-collar “with a little elegance.”
“You know from the outside he’s a good footballer, but you don’t realize how much he understands the game,” Heath said. “His leadership in his own way is more than I thought it’d be. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He makes everybody accountable. If people aren’t doing it, he lets them know what his feelings are, regardless of who it is.”
Alonso let a plastic water bottle know his feelings at halftime of a home game against Sporting Kansas City on Sept. 25, before a second-half comeback victory.
“He does have some fire,” Heath said, “as one of the Advocare bottles found out.”
Opara called himself “grateful” when he returned in August to play his former Kansas City team for the first time. He senses Alonso might have a different approach.
“I think Ozzie is going be like, ‘I want to stick it to you,’ ’’ Opara said. “He’s going to get the reception he deserves, but when the whistle blows, we might see a different Ozzie than we’ve seen all year.”