Ozzie Alonso doesn’t make comparisons.
Seattle was then. Minnesota is now. In his own words, he’s “focused.”
Alonso wanted to be a striker. As a child in Cuba, he knew he wanted to be the one scoring the goals, driving his team’s offense.
Oh, how things have changed.
“As a child I wanted to be a forward because they’re the ones who score the goals,” he said in Spanish. “Once I joined the [Cuban] U20 national team, I played for some time out wide, but as I got older I moved to the center and have stayed there for the rest of my career.”
Alonso’s path to playing as a defensive midfielder in the United States was a fortuitous one.
He began playing for FC Pinar de Rio, close to his hometown of San Cristóbal in western Cuba. Not long after, he was part of the national team’s youth system.
“The Cuban league sadly isn’t professional,” said Alonso. “But there are great players who don’t have the opportunity to leave Cuba and I think that if they had it, they could have a good future in another country. Due to circumstances beyond our control, they do not allow it.”
If Alonso was going to have a future in soccer, it would have to be in a different country. He needed to defect.
His chance came when the Caribbean nation was in Houston for the 2007 Gold Cup. While preparing for a game against Honduras, they stopped at a local Walmart. As Alonso told the Miami Herald, that was his time.
He left the store with a jacket, $700 cash, no English and no idea what to do next. Hoping his absence wouldn’t be immediately noticed, he borrowed a man’s phone, placing a single call to Miami and hopping on a bus shortly after. He was one of two Cubans to defect during the tournament.
Later that year, Alonso went on trial with now-defunct Chivas USA, earning a contract offer, which he declined to get more playing time in the USL. Soon after, he signed with the Seattle Sounders, starting as a defensive midfielder in the franchise’s inaugural season. He started 28 games as the Sounders found their way into the playoffs.
Alonso began to make a name for himself as one of the league’s top players in 2012, when he played in his second All-Star Game, was named Seattle’s MVP for the third straight year and made the MLS Best XI. Fans lovingly nicknamed him “The Honey Badger” and “El Corazón,” Spanish for “the heart.”
His time in Seattle nearly came to an end before the 2016 season, when injury concerns prompted the Sounders’ front office to seek offers for him. Nonetheless, he stayed with the club as they went on to win the MLS Cup that season. Alonso was there for the long haul that year, playing for 120 minutes through injury in the final, requiring 4 injections of painkillers.
After playing 277 matches as a Sounder, the declined to re-sign their captain — and last-remaining member of the original team — after the 2018 season.
Luckily, another MLS club was looking for a defensive midfielder.
Having conceded more than 71 goals through its first two seasons in the league, Minnesota United needed a defensive fix. Alonso fit the bill perfectly.
“The first thing we heard when speaking with players, front office staff and coaches about Ozzie was that he is a leader,” said United manager Adrian Heath in a statement shortly after Alonso was signed.
The price was right: a 2020 second-round SuperDraft pick was sent Orlando City’s way for the top spot in the waiver order and a couple of fourth-round picks in 2019, and Alonso was a Loon.
The move wouldn’t be an easy one. Having been with the Sounders since their beginning in MLS, Alonso was more than a part of the Seattle set-up.
It was, however, a new challenge.
“We are bringing in one of the best, most competitive and tenacious defensive midfielders in the league,” said Heath in the club’s release. The expectations were high for Alonso.
He was part of sweeping changes for United, joining fellow midfielder Ján Greguš, defenders Ike Opara and Romain Métanire, and goalkeeper Vito Mannone as the Loons sought to rebuild their ailing defense. Though some of those signings would join as the preseason progressed, Alonso was there from day one.
“I think we have one [acquisition] that’s really important and that’s Alonso,” attacking midfielder Miguel Ibarra told media members during the first week of training. “I think him being a leader and being a veteran in the league is going to help a lot. He just has that bite, that hunger. He wants to win and that’s all that matters to him. I’ve had a couple conversations and all he tells me is we need to win. With that mentality, I think he’s going to lead the team.”
In some ways, Alonso embodies the Loons’ mentality shift. The happy-to-be-here phase is gone. The time to win is now.
“We know that the coach has a lot of experience and that we’ve brought in top-tier players,” said Alonso. “The team is realizing that, this year, every time we enter the field, we have to leave everything out there and win the three points.”
Minnesota began their season on the right foot, with Alonso helping to lead the way. The Loons picked up their first away victory in 357 days with a 3-2 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps.
In that match, Alonso completed 80 of 83 passes. He recovered possession 9 times and had 7 tackles. He was the defensive midfielder United so desperately needed.
Ozzie Alonso in #MNUFC debut:— Joga Bonito USA (@Jasoninho10) March 3, 2019
80/83 (96.4%) passes
7/8 long balls
2 key passes
9/15 duels won
New team, same Ozzie. Excellent performance, bossing the midfield with and without the ball.#MLSisBack pic.twitter.com/K1nhXOwN7S
Though he will certainly be remembered as an integral player for the Sounders, Alonso will help make history with his new club. When United christen Allianz Field on April 13, he will likely be one of the most important players on the field.
Alonso’s path will probably never take him full circle, back to Pinar de Rio, but he has ended up in something of a triangle: 1,650 miles away from his first soccer club, 1,650 miles away from the one that will define his legacy.
Minnesota is the center for Alonso, the space on the field where he shines. He’s here to pull the strings. He’s here to be The defensive midfielder for his team. He’s here to show Minnesota United how to win.
But, most importantly, Ozzie Alonso is here.