Ozzie Alonso is the Magic of the Cup

We look back on the legendary career of four-time Open Cup Champion (and seven-time Finalist) Ozzie Alonso on the occasion of his retirement.
By: Jonah Fontela
Five players in Seattle Sounders FC uniforms cheering
Five players in Seattle Sounders FC uniforms cheering

Osvaldo Alonso Moreno only needs one name. Ozzie does it.

There’s no legend bigger in the Modern Era of the Open Cup. While tournament greats of earlier days live only in a kind of nostalgic rendering of the imagination – cracked black-and-white photos yellowing in cellars – Alonso did his myth-making for all to see in vivid living color.

On August 27, 2019 the tenacious midfielder lined up for a record seventh Open Cup Final, then with Minnesota United FC. It was a chance for the former Seattle Sounder great to win his fifth tournament title. It wasn’t meant to be, however, as the game ended 2-1 to Atlanta United, the club Alonso would join in 2022 and from where he announced his retirement from the game at the age of 38.

Ask any of the Open Cup’s latter-day evangelists and they’ll tell you much of the 109-year-old tournament’s romance lies in the opportunities it provides. For the overlooked and the outsiders – for the young and the passed-over. Eric Wynalda will tell you until you ask him, politely, to stop. So will Cup-winning executive Peter Wilt and 2017 Runner-up Sacha Kljestan. The late Sigi Schmid, Ozzie’s coach at the Sounders where he won four Open Cup titles (and one MLS crown), would too.

Cuba to the Carolinas

Back in 2008 Ozzie was alone in a strange land, barred from return to his home country.

He had 700 hundred dollars in his pocket and only a few cards left to play. If anyone was in need of opportunity’s knock, it was the 22-year-old holding midfielder no one had ever heard of outside of his native Cuba. “It was tough. I had no language. No family – but I had soccer,” said Alonso, remembering how he defected while on duty with the Cuban national team in Houston. How he rode a Greyhound bus for two days to Miami and somehow wrangled a try-out with the Charleston Battery of the U.S. second professional tier.

"From there, I knew I just had to look forward. There was no back. I told myself: ‘do the best you can – try to make it happen and go far.’,” Ozzie said in a 2019 interview with usopencup.com.

Alonso’s Cuban teammate Lester More (a striker who also defected at the 2007 Concacaf Gold Cup) asked his coach in Charleston, Mike Anhaeuser, if he could bring a friend along to training. The coach – a serious man and Charleston’s boss for 17 years – was reluctant. He knew nothing of Ozzie Alonso, but what was the harm in a look?

Ozzie’s smooth touch and hunger were obvious after only a few seconds. Days later, he signed his first pro contract. He started all six of the Battery’s 2008 Open Cup games including shock wins over MLS sides Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas. He was one of the best players on the field in the Final, at RFK Stadium against Jaime Moreno’s D.C. United, in a rare appearance for a non-MLS team in a Modern-Era Open Cup decider.

“The Open Cup gave me my chance,” said Ozzie. “It was my chance to improve and move forward. For me it was special, but for the team, we all knew it was a special moment too.”

The 2008 Charleston Battery Starting 11 midfield before a match
The 2008 Charleston Battery Starting 11 midfield before a match
Alonso in the 2008 Open Cup with the Charleston Battery (Bottom, 2nd from Right)

“I never thought I would make it that far,” he said. “The Cup showed me anything is possible."

He was impossible to miss in that 2008 Cinderella run. Ozzie never tired. He did all the dirty work and swept the floor up too. He traveled everywhere on the pitch from his perch in deep midfield where the wars break out. Aggressive isn’t strong enough a word. He was then, as he was through 18 years in American soccer, a battler who straddled the line between tough and nasty. The kind of guy you love playing with and dread playing against.

It wasn’t always clean. He wasn’t always polite. Ozzie had bite.

“He was impossible not to notice,” said Anhaeuser, his coach in Charleston and one of those Open Cup romantics you stumble on now and then. “He was the driving force for us that year.”

A Seattle (and Open Cup) Legend is Born

The loss to D.C. United in that 2008 Final stuck with Ozzie. To go so close and come up short, throbbed like a sore thumb. His next year, then with the Seattle Sounders and a break-out star for the first-year MLS club, he got his revenge. “Winning that Cup in 2009 was the best of the four [Open Cup] titles for me because it was so short after losing the Final to the same D.C. United team the year before and on the same field,” said Ozzie.

“It felt like revenge and it was sweet,” he said. “I can still feel it today if I close my eyes.”

Ozzie became a symbol for the Sounders – a talisman in the richest time in the club’s history. There were no arguments when he was named captain. A born leader, he won an MLS Cup (2016). He was a four-time league All-Star and was dubbed El Corazon de los Sounders by adoring fans in the Emerald City. His four Open Cup titles – and the high-octane way he played the game right out on the edge – make him a symbol, too, for our century-plus-old tournament.

Ours is a competition that doesn’t tolerate draws, plays through the heat of summer and always seems to have that little extra bit of added fire to it. Ozzie and the Cup are a matched pair. A balanced couple.

He got his first chance in the Open Cup in 2008. He lifted it for the first time in 2009.

Ozzie didn’t let go after that. He won back-to-back titles in 2010 and 2011 – both in front of record Open Cup Final crowds at home in Seattle. His late goal in the 2011 Final against the Chicago Fire revealed the other side of his game – a subtlety often overlooked as he waged his wars in midfield and put out fires everywhere else.

Up by one and with the game stretched, he collected the ball 30 yards out, slipped past a defender and left him on the ground. Ozzie raced into the box and held onto the ball. It looked like he held it longer than he should, like the chance had gone, but with one quick cut, he left the keeper and two more defenders for dead. The net rippling signaled the end of the game. The Cup was his. The celebrations were a mob-scene and Ozzie pounded his shirt in triumph.

It was a rare goal for a master of the hard graft. It was also the best defensive play available. It made the remaining minutes moot and doused any hopes the Fire had.

Last taste of Cup Glories

In 2012, just when it seemed the Sounders owned a magic key to unlock the Open Cup at will, they fell to Sporting KC in that year’s Final. The year after, they went out in a shock Third-Round loss to the second-tier Tampa Bay Rowdies.

All that did was make Ozzie angry. He was back to his best in 2014 and – this time with the lethal attacking duo of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins in front of him – there was no stopping Seattle (the Sounders won the Final 3-1 in overtime in Philly with Dempsey and Martins both on the board).

Clint Dempsey hands Ozzie Alonso the Open Cup trophy in 2014 with Seattle Sounders players in the background
Clint Dempsey hands Ozzie Alonso the Open Cup trophy in 2014 with Seattle Sounders players in the background
Clint Dempsey hands Ozzie Alonso the Open Cup trophy in 2014

Four times Ozzie lifted our Cup. He’s a member of the pantheon now and forever. His name’s up there with the likes of the Harrys of old: Ratican and Keough – and Bert Patenaude and Billy Gonsalves too. His reputation – like theirs, from a time left largely to our imaginings – looms huge.

Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.

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