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Seattle bets big again on Ljungberg
by Ridge Mahoney, October 30th, 2008 7AM

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[MLS] Regardless of what they put on the field next March, those in charge of Seattle Sounders FC certainly aren't hedging their bets, and have already gone where some MLS teams still dread to tread. They paid up $30 million to buy into MLS. They have sold more than 17,000 season tickets, acquired one of the most popular American players ever to play for the USA in Kasey Keller, and pledged a reported $5 million to unleash former Swedish international midfielder Freddie Ljungberg when their expansion season kicks off in a few months.

"For me, I felt if I was going to do this, it's a sincere thing, and really help the people over here with soccer," said Lungberg, 31, who accepted millions of dollars - the precise figure has not been publicized - in August from West Ham United to terminate the last three years of his contract. "I shouldn't go in three years' time when I'm past my peak. I feel really happy to be here."

He has signed a two-year deal reportedly worth $2.5 million per year.

A difficult season in London's East End - he scored two goals in 25 games for the Hammers, who were ravaged by management upheavals and takeover attempts - contrasted sharply with some scintillating years a few miles away at Arsenal. The Gunners won three FA Cups and two Premier League titles, including the incredible 2003-04 season when they ran the table unbeaten: 26 wins and 12 ties in 38 games.

He played 328 matches for Arsenal from 1998 to 2007, scoring 72 goals for a powerful squad that included Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, Tony Adams, Sol Campbell and, of course, Thierry Henry, who had been mentioned numerous times by general manager Adrian Hanauer as a possible DP option.

By signing a DP, Seattle has lapped eight MLS teams that have so far declined to take the plunge.

Suspicion that hip, ankle, and rib injuries, and a bizarre case of blood poisoning caused by one of his tattoos, had taken their toll dissipated in June at the European Championship, where Ljungberg played well for an outmanned Swedish team that failed to advance out of group play. Once he and West Ham settled on the terms of his departure, Ljungberg began looking for a new team in Europe, but instead ended up visiting Seattle and landing in a new league.

"A Designated Player is like threading the eye of a needle," said lead investor Joe Roth, perhaps also referring to the types of passes he'd like Ljungberg to deliver for Seattle. "You want someone who is not a gimmick and playing at the top of his career. We don't need anyone to come and sell tickets because the people of Seattle have embraced the team."

There's not much gimmickry attached to Ljungberg, a strong runner and willing worker who during his Arsenal days melded guile with go-for-it and once tallied 17 goals in a season. He's played as a winger or flank attacker for much of his career; Roth and Hanauer envision him in the middle of the field.

Former Galaxy coach Frank Yallop didn't have much success converting David Beckham into a central player, but since Seattle has only four players and no coach, much can change prior to the opening of training camp in late January, after the expansion draft, SuperDraft, and signing of players from the current Sounders USL-1 team. And the hiring of a coach, of course.

When asked if he'd signed for any club with the coaching situation so much in the air, he laughed and said, "I haven't signed that many contracts at all. I played nine years for one manager [Arsene Wenger] at Arsenal and that one year for West Ham. This is a new team so there will be a lot of new players and other new things."

There are a few other Beckham-esque elements present in Ljungberg, in addition to playing for a decade in England. He sports tattoos, models Calvin Klein underwear, and often wears his hair shaved short. Unlike Beckham, he's not likely to be bouncing back and forth across the Atlantic to play for his country; after the Euros, which took his caps total to 72 (14 goals), he retired from the national team.

"You can never say never," he admitted, "but I made that decision and I think that's it."

During a press conference and a teleconference call Tuesday announcing his signing, Ljungberg acknowledged yet downplayed a few hazards of playing in MLS: summer heat, long trips, unfamiliar surroundings, and artificial surfaces in a few stadiums, including Qwest Field, home to his new team and to another that plays football, the NFL Seahawks.

He emphasized that fitness and health won't be issues once the real kicking and running commences, and told a little story about being briefed to use "soccer" instead of "football."

"They told me I should do that," he said, "but when I arrived here and showed my passport to the lady [at immigration control], I told here I was a football player, and she laughed in my face."

Welcome to America.



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