The 33-year-old Cuban midfielder has been a franchise staple since Seattle’s 2009 MLS expansion season, carving out a legacy as arguably the greatest defensive midfielder the league has ever seen. This offseason, however, the beloved veteran hit free agency, ultimately opting to sign with Minnesota United.
There are few, if any, players currently in MLS more heavily identified with a single club. The thought of Alonso in any uniform aside from Rave Green is still a strange one, Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer admitted after his team’s Tuesday training session.
“[Change has] been progressively happening over the course of time,” Schmetzer said. “But we’re certainly going to miss Ozzie. I’m going to miss him personally. He was a great, great player for the club. We will have to try and replace him, which is not going to be easy. But the club does move forward. So whatever personal feelings I have, Ozzie was a great player for the club, but we have to continue.
“But it feels a little different. It feels a little different.”
Tuesday’s practice at Starfire Sports Complex certainly felt like the dawn of a new era, even with 24 players returning to the team from last year’s roster.
Alonso’s departure represents the last of the Sounders’ 2009 MLS originals to leave the team. Also gone is star forward Clint Dempsey, another Seattle staple who retired midway through last season tied for the club’s all-time lead in regular-season goals scored.
“That’s interesting,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “Clearly we’ve had a couple of iconic players depart. If you think about when Clint Dempsey was signed, Ozzie was signed, the [youth] academy didn’t exist in any kind of practical sense.
“So, yeah, we’ve transformed how the Sounders look and I think we’re in a really good position to succeed in the new MLS and in the world market. Those are hopefully all good things, and a sign of the evolution where even as we lose these marvelous players that were with the club forever, that we’re still prepared to succeed going forward.”
Replacing Alonso’s presence, both in the locker room and on the field, becomes one Seattle’s most important preseason tasks.
Alonso’s skillset has proven notoriously difficult for Seattle to replace in games he’s missed over the years, although Swedish midfielder Gustav Svensson has helped to mitigate that issue since his 2017 arrival. When healthy, however, Alonso is still one of the league’s premier defensive presences and most accurate passers out of the midfield.
In Svensson and 23-year-old midfielder Cristian Roldan, Lagerwey said he feels he has a capable duo at the position, pointing out that Seattle rode that exact duo to the MLS Cup final in 2017 when Alonso was out injured.
“I don’t know that you need to do this stuff like-for-like,” Lagerwey said. “If you have one guy doing something, I don’t know that you need to point at one guy [to exactly take over]. Do I think Cristian has some of those qualities? I do.
“We tend to look at it more like that from a group setting of how we get the best group. In terms of how we get that fighting spirit and that tenacity, I think that comes from within. It doesn’t necessarily have to be one person setting that tone.”