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Large investment in Minnesota United’s new midfield pair means big expectations

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota United’s multi-year, multi-million-dollar investment in new midfielders Ozzie Alonso and Jan Gregus will be counted on to produce when the season starts March 2.

Early glimpses of their quality was on display during a nine-versus-nine scrimmage in the club’s third preseason training session Wednesday, Jan. 23, in Blaine.

“We know we’ve upgraded there,” United coach Adrian Heath said. “We are a lot better now and have got a bit more protection in front of the back four (defenders). But even in possession of the ball … the quality on the ball and the continuity play and range of passing, timing of passing was there for everyone to see.”

Alonso and Gregus were on separate sides in Wednesday’s scrimmage, but their ability to establishing chemistry together will be critical for the Loons to contend for a playoff spot in their third Major League Soccer season.

Alonso, a 5-foot-10 Cuban, is a 10-year MLS veteran who has not played for anybody but the Seattle Sounders. Gregus, a 6-foot-3 Slovakian, was a pro for 10 years in his native country and Czech Republic before a three-year run with FC Copenhagen in Denmark.

“This league,” Alonso explained, “is you have to perform every game and you have to play hard, and I think he’s a good player. He’s shown it before.”

Alonso will come in as the No. 6, or defensive midfielder, a hole the Loons have had since Sam Cronin was lost to head and neck injuries last preseason. Gregus most likely be will higher up the field as the No. 8, or box-to-box midfielder, with the ability to track back and play as a No. 6, too.

“He can do both,” Heath said.” He has played as a box-to-box (midfielder). He’s played as a deep-lying midfielder, but obviously that’s a role that Ozzie has cemented in this league over the last 10 years. He’s probably been the best No. 6, defensive midfielder, whichever you want to describe, in the league over the last 10 years. We are pleased with that little combination.”

Gregus said he prides himself on his flexibility. “I used to play six; I used to play eight, so it really depends on the tactical things from the coach and what he needs me to do. I try to be everywhere.”

Alonso cut right to the chase when speaking with Heath as the acquisition was finalized a few weeks ago.

“I said, ‘Are you looking forward to it?’ ” Heath recalled. “He said, ‘I’m looking forward to winning.’ That’s all he’s about.”

Alonso, who led the Sounders to the 2016 MLS Cup, added: “I hate to lose. I’ve been in Seattle for 10 years and I made the playoffs for 10 years, so that’s why I came here, to make the playoffs and win a championship, because I’m sad to lose. You have to push and run the team to all (have) the same mentality.”

Winger Miguel Ibarra has seen Alonso express that attitude. “He’s really reached out to me,” Ibarra said. “He told me we have to keep going and we have to put it in every day in practice. Our objective is to make the playoffs.”

Alonso, 33, also will set out to prove doubters wrong; the ones that look at his older age and wonder how much he has left in the tank. The Sounders had their doubts. They left him unprotected in the 2018 expansion draft, and then newcomer Los Angeles FC passed on him.

Alonso looks at his age differently — experience that provides benefits. “I can read the game a little more because I’m not 23 anymore, so I now have more focus on my position and to find a way to give a good pass and run less,” he said. “But if I have to run, I can run because I’m still fit.”

Like Alonso, Gregus comes from a winning culture. FC Copenhagen advanced to the 2016 UEFA Champions League, the top club tournament in the world.

“I don’t like to speak about myself,” Gregus, 28, said of his style of play. “It’s like the job of the others. But if I play the game, I want to give everything, not 100 but 200 (percent), with everything for the team — the passes, tackles, shots, whatever it is.”

Gregus and Alonso already seem to be getting along. Gregus had preferred to wear jersey No. 6 in Minnesota, but Alonso already had claimed it. So Gregus took No. 8, setting up numbers that parallel their positions.

“Six was occupied; that was it,” Gregus explained. “I had no problem. I don’t think the number has a big role, but yeah, eight is good.”

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