The stars align with Ljungberg move

By Ridge Mahoney

I'm glad to hear that Freddie Ljungberg is happy to be a member of the Chicago Fire, and that the team is glad to have him, but there won’t be a clear winner or loser in this deal until discussions about a contract for next year commence.

Seattle officials balked two months ago when Ljungberg wanted to talk about a new contract to replace his current deal that expires at the end of the season. Chicago absorbed a full DP salary-budget charge by trading for him, and not the discounted 50 percent hit of a midseason acquisition such as winger Nery Castillo or Sounders striker Blaise Nkufo.

For DPs, the salary-budget charge – as is the case for all MLS salaries – is computed on a monthly basis, so whatever Ljungberg cost the Sounders against the salary cap he will count the same for the Fire, unless Chicago is using allocation money to soften the blow.

Credit the Fire for taking a gamble on Ljungberg, with New York having already filled its three DP slots and looking certain of a playoff place only one season removed from being the league’s laughingstock. Since Ljungberg’s contract is up at the end of the year, he and Chicago have a few months to evaluate whether he can come back as a DP next year or re-sign at a non-DP number, or depart.

This season, Ljungberg and the Sounders stumbled out of the gate. He reported late for preseason training, citing confusion about ongoing negotiations of a new collective bargaining agreement.

Why he thought talks should preclude his attendance at training sessions was never explained yet his lackluster play certainly contributed to the team’s struggles in March, April and May, as forward Fredy Montero also labored and injuries sidelined Osvaldo Alsonso, Brad Evans, Nate Jaqua and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado.

The first trade of a DP focused some criticism of Seattle’s decision to jettison him, yet Ljungberg – despite complaints about bad refereeing and playing on artificial turf – gave the Sounders pretty good value last season.

His own stats weren’t glittering – two goals, nine assists – yet he drew attention that opened space for Montero, Jaqua, Steve Zakuani and other attackers, and ranked among the league’s best at delivering corner kicks. A few of the fouls called against him were flops yet most of the 67 he suffered were legit.

He certainly didn’t fail as Luis Angel Landin, Luciano Emilio and a few other DPs have done. Chicago surrendered only a conditional draft pick in either 2011 or 2012, though it does pay the outstanding portion of his 2010 salary ($1.3 million base). Getting off the fake turf at Qwest Field will ease the stress on his 33-year-old body,

His aching knees and continuing frustration over officiating, plus a poor start to the 2010 season, exacerbated tensions between him and the club, which preferred to delay discussions of a new contract because of his form, his age, and his health.

Still, he didn’t handle it well, and for a few weeks trained on his own while the Sounders negotiated a move.

“Freddie is coming to the end of his contract and it’s unknown for how long a team might lock him up for,” said Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer. “I’m sure what people perceived as drama up in Seattle played a role as well. Ultimately, he’s in a good place and a good city. I like him a lot and it’s good to see him wind up somewhere cool in the league. In this crazy single-entity system, I do have some incentive for Chicago to be successful, too.”

That sportsmanlike attitude could come back to haunt Hanauer, as the Fire and Seattle have yet to play this season. Thus Ljungberg will get at least two shots at his former team.

“I know, I know,” said Hanauer when asked why he couldn’t find a team the Sounders had already played at least once. “That’s going to make some good TV but my fans are going to probably hate me if he does well against us. But it’s good for the league and it’s good for Freddie and it could be a good draft pick for us.”

The trade also freed up a DP slot for the Sounders, which signed Uruguayan international Alvaro Fernandez as its second DP (with Ljungberg gone, Nkufo is the other), and thus won’t have to pay the $250,000 “penalty” for a third DP.

Fernandez has already scored twice: he headed the vital goal by which Seattle tied Isidro Metapan, 1-1, and advanced to the group stage of the Concacaf Champions’ League, and on Sunday tucked away a feed from Montero to clinch a 2-0 defeat of Houston.

The defeat of the Dynamo evened Seattle’s league record at 8-8-4 and ran its unbeaten streak in all competitions (not counting a 2-1 loss to Glasgow Celtic in a friendly) to eight matches.

“I just want to wish Freddie the best of luck except when he plays us and we move on,” said keeper Kasey Keller after a 1-0 win over San Jose July 31. “We’ll just keep going with what we’re doing right now. I’m very happy with the way things are.”

3 comments about "The stars align with Ljungberg move".
  1. Jeff Gingold, August 9, 2010 at 12:39 p.m.

    Hanauer got it completely right in moving Ljungberg regardless of how he does against the Sounders. From the stands, Ljungberg appeared to be a petulent prima donna who wasn't quick enough to win the ball, was too busy arguing calls (even if he had a case) to bother to chase the ball after he lost it, wasn't tough enough to deal with the physicality of the MLS (a little ironic after a career in the EPL), and on the rare occasion when he was positioned well to shoot, couldn't finish (remember last year's All Star shootout --- that was unfortunately typical of his occasional shots on goal). That's all without figuring in his lack of commonsense in insisting on flying first class on team flights when the rest of the team was in coach. Regardless of whose fault it was (if one disregards all the preceding comments), Ljungberg and Montero never clicked together. Since Ljungberg stopped playing for the Sounders, they have not lost and Montero has been absolutely possessed. The team is much faster and much more a team. If Ljungberg has two great games against Seattle, that will only prove he has been capable of playing better but couldn't be bothered while he was in Seattle. By the way, there's nothing wrong with the turf in Qwest Field, and it's hardly an excuse except that ball moves faster and that's bad news for him because he's not fast anymore. Frankly, I will be surprised if he makes it in Chicago. It's tough to be at the end of a very successful career when the head still thinks the player has it, but the speed and desire are not there anymore. Kudos to Sounders management for having tried it with him (it seemed like a good idea at the time), and moreso, for dealing with it effectively when it wasn't working. It wasn't working for a very long time.

  2. todd burkett, August 9, 2010 at 12:55 p.m.

    Jeff, your comments were spot on. All except for that bit about the turf at Qwest Field. It is an abomination, and you can get the same ball movement on a well-manicured grass field. The league will be better off when all teams play on grass. If Toronto could manage it, I don't see why seattle couldn't.

  3. Jeff Gingold, August 9, 2010 at 1:04 p.m.

    Todd, I absolutely agree that there's nothing like a nicely manicured natural turf field in the summer in Seattle. When the monsoon season starts here, however, real grass just does not work well regardless of how good the drainage system is. If you saw the Sounders-Metalpan second match in El Salvador, you got an extreme view of a waterlogged natural turf field, although I'll admit that was a pretty rotten pitch to begin with in all likelihood.

    In any event, you can't say the artificial turf is an unreasonably hard stress on players' legs anymore. The Qwest Field turf (which is used throughout the region because of the weather) is not the old billiard table top that was prevalent 10 years ago.

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