TUKWILA, Wash. -- Roger Levesque didn't know much about Osvaldo Alonso the first time they met on a soccer field in 2008.
Levesque was playing for the USL Sounders, and Alonso was with the Charleston Battery. Levesque was aware that Charleston had a talented, young midfielder from Cuba, but it wasn't like he was given a stack of game tapes of Alonso to study before the game.
In the USL, you scout on the run. Players learn about each other in-game.
Early in that first meeting, Alonso ran through one of Levesque's teammates on a hard tackle that, Levesque remembers, "was sending a message that, 'I'm going to be around tonight."' It also, Levesque believed, warranted a response.
Later in that game, Levesque retaliated with a tough, twisting, message-sending tackle on Alonso.
"I returned the favor. I got him pretty good," Levesque said. "And then I got a yellow card. My first of the season."
They joked about it briefly after Thursday's Sounders practice.
Seattle played Charleston five times that season. Although Alonso didn't know it at the time, those games became his MLS auditions.
"I was impressed with his presence on the field," Levesque said. "After that year, knowing his potential and what he brings to the table, I was really excited to see that guy in Seattle. He's become a big part of soccer in Seattle."
When USL Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer became an assistant with the MLS Sounders, he aggressively advocated for Alonso. The team paid Charleston about $150,000 -- a healthy chunk of money for a second-division player -- for Alonso's rights.
"It seemed like a lot of money at the time," Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer said, "but it turned out to be a bargain. We knew he was a bulldog who covered a lot of ground, but the first year, he surpassed our expectations.
"And the fact that he's improved every year is a testament to his work ethic and his desire to get better. He's really the glue and a perfect representative of the club."
Alonso is having an MVP kind of season.
He is as tough as beef jerky and seemingly wins every ball that needs to be won. He plays his best in the biggest games. A defensive-minded midfielder, he still has scored six goals in all competitions, tied for third-best on the team. And his 77 shots are second-most on the club; only Fredy Montero has taken more.
"You could see from the first day that he was definitely going to give us something very important in the middle of midfield," keeper Kasey Keller said. "And he's just continued to improve.
"For me, for Ozzie, the next big step is can he become the organizer, that leader, from that position. He has all the tools to do it. It's just that he needs a little bit more familiarity with the (English) language and a little bit more familiarity at that leadership role. When he gets that, the sky's the limit."
In his third season with the Sounders, Alonso, who turns 26 next month, has become the best midfielder in MLS. The runner-up probably is Real Salt Lake's Kyle Beckerman.
"We knew we were getting a solid player," coach Sigi Schmid said of Alonso. "As to how good he was going to be was another question. We spent money because we felt he was going to be a quality player. He fulfilled our expectations and probably exceeded them as well. He's a very important player. The kind of player you build a team around."
Alonso and Beckerman will be dueling quarterbacks on Saturday night when the Sounders meet RSL in the first leg of the MLS Western Conference semifinals.
"I think the question is going to be which guy can influence his team better," Keller said. "I'll bet on Ozzie most times."
Levesque said it will be a raging battle of hairstyles. The tangle of Beckerman's long dreadlocks versus the economy of Alonso's close-cropped cut.
"I expect Ozzie to be all over the place," Levesque said.
But Schmid said it won't truly be Alonso vs. Beckerman.
"It's more what I would call a comparison," Schmid said. "Who can win the most balls for his team? Who can have the most influence on his team? Who can do the best job of opening the game up, connecting those passes, covering ground?"
It's another big challenge in Alonso's ascendant career. Another night when Alonso will announce his presence early.