TUKWILA, Wash. – It’s no exaggeration to say that without Gustav Svensson, the Seattle Sounders probably aren’t playing for a second straight MLS Cup title against Toronto FC on Saturday (4 pm ET | ESPN and UniMás in USA; TSN and TVAS in Canada).
Originally signed for defensive midfield depth behind the linchpin duo of Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan, the Swedish international has proven invaluable for Seattle this season, playing 2,645 minutes across 30 starts and plugging holes all over the field in the process.
He deputized at right back early in the season when presumptive starter Brad Evans was injured and eventual stalwart Kelvin Leerdam had yet to join the roster. When center backs Chad Marshall and Roman Torres missed games for injuries or red card suspensions, it was Svensson who filled that void. And perhaps most crucially — with Alonso limited to 24 starts this season and largely out of commission in the 2017 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs — Svensson has acted as the club’s unquestioned best contingency plan.
“[Svensson has] been important because, No. 1, he’s played probably more positions than he would like,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said. “And, No. 2, as he’s grown into the group and the season has progressed he’s played a big role in a lot of our successful matches. It’s been a pleasant surprise and we’re very, very happy to have him.”
Svensson, 30, is also one of the most interesting and popular characters in Seattle’s locker room. He’s played all over, from his native Sweden, to Turkey, to the Ukraine, to the Chinese Super League – a journey that has provided him with plenty of outlandish stories.
When Svensson was playing in the Crimea region of Ukraine for a club called SC Tavriya, for example, he was there when the Russian government annexed the city of Simferopol. While he was on a bus to safety with his teammates, they were pulled over by Russian militia members, who boarded strapped with assault rifles and began interrogating people before finally being talked down by team security.
“I’m not afraid of things generally,’’ Svensson recalled in an interview with the Seattle Times earlier this season. “I’ll fight with anyone that wants to fight me. But at that moment, it’s hard to describe. I’d never felt that way before. I had no control over what was happening.”
Life in MLS has been calmer for Svensson and his strong play with the Sounders has continued into this year’s playoffs, where he scored the opening goal in the 11th minute of Seattle’s first-leg victory over the Houston Dynamo in the Western Conference Championship.
He’s also used it to break back into the Swedish national team fold, something he had all-but written off after his move to China. Svensson was called in for Sweden’s recent World Cup qualifiers and played 70 minutes as an injury substitute in the second leg of his country’s improbable upset of Italy, which he called “one of the biggest things to ever happen to me.”
“I moved to China and my chances of coming to the national team got smaller and I thought it would be the same going to MLS because it’s so far away from Europe and it’s difficult to follow,” Svensson said. “But obviously I did something right and they followed me here. I’m very happy, not only for being here with the Seattle Sounders but also for being called up and playing on the national team.”
Now, with Alonso still not 90 minutes fit coming off a quad injury, Svensson seems to be a virtual lock to feature in Seattle’s starting XI beside Roldan on Saturday.
In past seasons, any sort of injury absence from Alonso was catastrophic for the Sounders more often than not. Under normal circumstances, his presence alone could very well be considered the difference in an MLS Cup matchup that pits the Sounders against Toronto’s fearsome, star-studded attack.
With Svensson in the fold, though, the Sounders have finally found the cover for their captain that has proven so elusive over the years.
“I would hesitate to just compare Gustav to a replacement for Ozzie because he’s a good player in his own right,” Schmetzer said. “He fits in our team and what we’ve done with him this season is a testament to his versatility. I wouldn’t say he’s anybody’s replacement; I would say he’s a very handy piece to have and I hope he stays here for a long time.”
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