One of the scariest sights Seattle Sounders FC fans can imagine is Osvaldo Alonso limping off the pitch — especially during a loser-out match.
That’s just what they witnessed Monday around the 55th minute of the Sounders’ decisive second leg of the Western Conference semifinal against FC Dallas.
And when it happened, coach Sigi Schmid responded by tapping rookie Micheal Azira to replace one of the Major League Soccer’s top defensive midfielders in a match when any allowed goal could end the Sounders’ season.
“We didn’t expect Ozzie to fall down and pull his hamstring,” Azira said. “We’re just standing there, and I was trying to warm up and they say, ‘Hey, let’s go.’ You have to be ready right away in case anything happens.”
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Azira was ready enough. The Sounders maintained the clean sheet that punched their ticket to the Western Conference finals, where the Los Angeles Galaxy awaits Nov. 23.
“He’s not overwhelmed by situations,” Schmid said. “So he came in with a calm head and just went out there and just basically went about his business. So I never worry about Mike in that regard. I never worry that he’s going to panic, or he’s going to worry about the situation. He’s a good, solid character who always brings that calm and his belief when he steps on the field.”
The trick, Azira said, is not only in being prepared, but also in being ready to adapt.
“You need to find the rhythm of the game,” he said. “You have to read the game and see what we need for the team right now. You just need to get into the flow of the game, play simple as much as you can.”
Azira, 27, is a native of Uganda and was called up to his national team for a 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifier.
He played at Alabama’s University of Mobile, and spent the summers of 2011 and ’12 with the Mississippi Brilla of the USL Premier Development League. From there he advanced to USL Pro, spending the 2012 and ’13 seasons with the Charleston Battery. He played with the Battery in the Carolina Challenge Cup this preseason, but after the final game he said goodbye to his old team and headed north with the Sounders.
He has appeared in 14 MLS games, none bigger than the one on Monday.
“It was a game that we wanted to finish without conceding a goal — or we had to score a goal,” he said. “We got chances, but at that moment we said, ‘Let’s get whatever the game gives us.’ ”
Alonso has remained out of training this week, but Schmid said he expects him to be ready for the start of the series with the Galaxy. Alonso is a four-time Sounders MVP and was selected to the 2012 MLS Best XI. Like Ariza, he came to Seattle from the Charleston Battery.
Frozen ground caused the Sounders to shift Wednesday training from their usual natural-grass pitch to one of the artificial-turf fields at Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila. The team plans to delay its Thursday practice an hour to allow more time for the grass field to thaw. Schmid said defender DeAndre Yedlin is expected to play Friday when the United States national team meets Colombia in London. However, he said it hasn’t yet been determined if Yedlin will return to Seattle after that game or remain for the national team’s friendly with Ireland in Dublin on Tuesday before flying back. Schmid said Onyekachi Apam, a Nigerian defender signed in mid-September, hasn’t been able to shake continuing fitness issues and seems unlikely to figure in the team’s short- or long-term plans. Schmid indicated a move could be made in the next week or so.