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Looking back on Ljungberg's legacy

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Freddie Ljungberg's Sounders career ended with much more of a wimper than his on-field demeanor would suggest.
Freddie Ljungberg's Sounders career ended with much more of a wimper than his on-field demeanor would suggest.

About midway through the first half of the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal between the Sounders and the Galaxy, during a season that up to that point had been filled with disappointment, Freddie Ljungberg made his final public appearance in Rave Green. There were about 5,000 people in attendance at the match, which was being held at Starfire Sports Complex, the Sounders’ auxiliary stadium in Tukwila.

Ljungberg’s presence was not announced and he was only noticeable if you happened to be looking toward the byline as he was jogging to the bench wearing sandals and his practice uniform. Ljungberg took his place at the end of the bench and only got up to sign some autographs and chat with fans who noticed him, which happened with increased frequency as more people realized what was going on.

Maybe he knew something the rest of us didn’t. That was as close as he’d get to a proper send off while still a member of the team that made him one of the biggest-name and highest-paid players to ever wear the uniform of a Major League Soccer franchise.

That game was on Wednesday. Ljungberg practiced Thursday and Friday. By Sunday he was essentially gone. After the Saturday training session, Sounders coach Sigi Schmid surprisingly announced that Ljungberg might miss the game against FC Dallas on July 11.

Citing an ankle injury, Schmid explained that Ljungberg's availability was "day-to-day."

"Day-to-day" was soon understood to be indefinite as Ljungberg never returned to training with his Sounders teammates.

By the next week, rumors were rampant that Ljungberg had requested a transfer; that he would soon be joining the New York Red Bulls or one of several European sides. Official word from the Sounders regarding his status finally came July 23, almost exactly two weeks after Ljungberg last appeared in public wearing Sounders regalia.

"Freddie at this time, he is training by himself, getting healthy, getting fit," Sounders GM Adrian Hanauer said then. "We agreed together that it made some sense to keep him away from the club as he is exploring other options. I don’t think there’s a secret that that’s happening. We just thought it was best to keep this team focused right here on winning on Sunday, let Freddie explore options."

Hanauer went on to laud Ljungberg for his efforts, both on the field and with the fans, calling him an "ambassador" and crediting him with helping "launch an amazing franchise." It seemed, in many ways, like a farewell speech. As it would turn out, it essentially was.

Ljungberg’s time with the Sounders officially ended July 30.

The man who was brought to the Sounders on a multimillion-dollar contract, helped usher in the most successful expansion-franchise launch in American sports history and was named to two MLS All-Star teams (to speak nothing of his pre-MLS accomplishments) was traded to the Chicago Fire in exchange for a conditional draft pick. There was no formal press conference, only a release from the team and a post on his personal website that thanked the fans and his teammates for their support and expressed gratitude for his time in the Pacific Northwest.

What exactly happened to sour the relationship is still not entirely clear. We do know that the season got off to a rocky start as Ljungberg arrived late for training camp, continued to worsen as he and the team struggled, reached somewhat of a boiling point when Schmid openly criticized Ljungberg's complaining to referees and essentially ended when Sounders ownership rebuffed Ljungberg's in-season request for a contract extension.

After being traded, Ljungberg said the decision not to play and to practice separately from teammates was the choice of the Sounders, not his.

He reiterated that stance during a conference call on Friday.

"My contract was up in November," Ljungberg said. "There was a lot of interest in me this summer. I asked when we were going to negotiate this contract. I was told after the contract was up. I have to be realistic, I'm 33 and I can’t just sit and wait.

"I passed some stuff by in the winter and did that for Seattle. I need to make a decision. There was nothing like hard feelings either way. Sigi didn’t let me train with the team, that’s one thing I’ll never understand."

With both sides clearly moving on, it seems there is little reason for either side to shed much more light than this.

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Since the trade, Ljungberg has seemed much closer to the player who was named to the MLS Best XI after his inaugural season. In four matches with the Fire, Ljungberg has already equaled the three assists he had during 15 matches with the Sounders this season. The Fire have claimed seven points (1.75 PPM) and scored eight goals (2.0 GPG) in the four games Ljungberg has played after averaging 1.29 GPG and 1.14 PPM in the 14 matches before his arrival.

Conversely, since Ljungberg last played for the Sounders -- a 3-1 loss to the Galaxy the weekend before that Open Cup match -- his former teammates have not lost in six MLS matches. The Sounders have moved from 11th overall to sixth and outscored their opponents 7-2.

"We stepped into a good run right after he left," Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. "But, can you say that’s because he left? I don’t think so. I think we might of hit a good run as well. We played some good games early on in the season where we just didn’t finish. But we played some good soccer and did some good things."

Fredy Montero, more than any other Sounder, has thrived in Ljungberg's absence. In the six matches since Ljungberg last played, Montero has scored four goals and registered two assists. More than the numbers, he's also seemed to find a comfort level that had been absent for most of this year.

"They’re both players that are most comfortable playing just underneath the striker," Schmid said when asked to explain both players' improvement since their separation. "It’s a role Ljungberg is in right now, it’s a role that Montero is in right now.

"We tried to have that work. We tried to have Montero and Ljungberg together and it was successful. We made the playoffs, won a U.S. Open Cup (last year). It probably took away a little bit of the strength for both players. Now not being on the same team, each is able to play to his strengths a little bit more."

The two players will lead their teams into Saturday's contest both in the thick of the playoff race. The Sounders are currently eighth in PPM (1.38) and the Fire are ninth (1.33). This match represents what coaches and players often refer to as a "six-pointer." A Sounders win would leave them eight points up on the Fire. A Chicago victory would leave them just two points back of the Sounders with three matches in hand.

The significance of the match's effect on the standings seems to be where the Sounders are focusing their energy.

"Ljungberg was a great guy while he was here," Sounders right back James Riley said. "He contributed a lot in the year and a half that he was here. He’s a great guy and a good teammate. It will be hugs and handhsakes before the game, but we’ll be trying to get a result anyway possible.

"We know it’s an important part of our fixutre. Especially at home now, we know we have to get points. We have a pretty congested schedule, so we don’t have time to sulk about different results."

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While the players and coaches may be focusing on the matters at hand, this seems like the perfect time to assess Ljungberg's days with the Sounders.

Ljungberg was essentially allowed to pass into the team’s history with almost no fanfare. The record books will show he only scored two MLS goals while wearing the Rave Green, collected just 12 assists and never led his team to a playoff victory. The statistics will not show how much he contributed to the Sounders' off-field success.

"I think Freddie played a big part in helping us launch the franchise," Hanauer said. "It was a big signing, in a rollout of a bunch of big announcements for this club. Whether it was signing Kasey Keller, or a partnership with Xbox, or KING-5, or Kevin Calabro. There were a bunch of big announcements that helped us launch this franchise in a big way. Freddie was one of those."

While stressing that Ljungberg's signing was "first and foremost about the soccer," Hanauer did admit that there were obvious benefits beyond goals, assists and even leadership.

"There’s a package with every player you sign," Hanauer said. "Certainly it’s not a pure marketing decision, but every player you sign you wonder how they’ll contribute on the field but also think about what kind of other things they offer. Certainly, we understood there was some added benefits of adding a player of his stature to the team."

The decision to sign Ljungberg, at least outside of Seattle, was initially greeted with a fair amount of skepticism. The contract was reported to be worth about $10 million over two years -- a figure that is somewhat debatable since it also included receiving a cut of such things as jersey sales and other endorsements along with a roughly $1.3 million annual salary. At the time, it was among the richest contracts ever handed out by a MLS franchise.

Fueling the skepticism was the fact that Ljungberg was coming off a year in which he did not play competitive soccer, retired from international competition and was rumored to be contemplating a future in furniture design after breaking several ribs in his final match at West Ham United in April 2008.

The Sounders essentially ignored those concerns to bring in a player with international name recognition, was still relatively young -- 31 at the time of the signing -- and offered the possibility of being a player around which the team could build both a marketing campaign and a team. Not only was Ljungberg only a few years removed from starring for Arsenal and captaining the Swedish national team, but he was also recognizable to non-soccer fans for his stint as a Calvin Klein model.

Shortly after signing with the Sounders in October 2008, Ljungberg underwent a series of surgeries that helped keep him healthy for the bulk of his first season. He played well enough to be named one of the league’s top XI players, helped drive enough ticket sales for the Sounders to break league attendance records and was instrumental in the Sounders winning the U.S. Open Cup and making the playoffs.

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His second season in Seattle got off to a much more bumpy start. The offseason was filled with rumors of his possible transfer to a European team and -- with the players union threatening to strike if a deal could not be reached on the expired collective bargaining agreement -- he reported to training camp a week late while he contemplated possible fallback options. While Ljungberg was away, Sounders captain Kasey Keller publicly expressed disappointment in his teammate for failing to honor his contract.

Ljungberg eventually reported to camp, chalking up his late arrival to a miscommunication between his agent and the team, but for one reason or another nothing seemed quite right. The player that so often dominated his MLS competition during his first year in the league became more known for complaining to referees and expressing his frustration with dramatic gestures than for slick passes and deft dribbling.

The complaining became such an issue that Schmid finally addressed it during comments to the press following a loss the San Jose Earthquakes in May.

"If throwing his hands up motivates him and makes him work harder, it’s not an issue," Schmid said. "If arguing with the referee takes away from time that you could be helping the team than it is an issue. As a leader, he’s got that responsibility on his shoulders to help guide the team. He needs to look at it and say, hey, can I do that better? Can I be better at that because it certainly doesn’t help our team."

Ljungberg did not necessarily agree with that sentiment.

"I played on the biggest teams in the world and you need to get upset if the ref is not doing the right thing," he was reported as saying after the match. "If you lose your passion, you won’t play. I don’t agree on that."

Although the Sounders quickly moved past that controversy, at least publicly, they lost four of their next five matches, and Ljungberg managed just one assist during that stretch. A 3-1 loss to the Galaxy several days before the USOC match would prove to be Ljungberg’s final match with the Sounders.

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Drawing the conclusion that Ljungberg’s absence had a direct correlation to the Sounders’ turnaround is unnecessarily simplistic. Many aspects of the team’s play, from Montero’s emergence as a true offensive force to the return to health of defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso to the settling of the team’s backline, are all much more plausible explanations.

From a psychological perspective, even as Ljungberg was apart from the team, the players knew Blaise Nkufo -- another high-level international -- was on his way. During that same time, it had become well known that the Sounders were also bringing in Alvaro Fernandez, another player with World Cup experience. A day before Ljungberg's trade was announced, Fernandez was officially introduced.

Both players represented stark departures from Ljungberg. Neither was particularly well known and both have seemed to integrate easily with their teammates, even if the on-field chemistry hasn't always been apparent.

"Ultimately what our fans want to see is good soccer and wins, whether that comes in the form of a former Arsenal player or whether it comes in the form of finding a gem playing with Deportivo Cali," Hanauer said. "I think the fans just want good soccer that improves year to year and a team they can be proud of and excited about."

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With the benefit of hindsight, it's hard to find a bad guy in this entire ordeal. Ljungberg was unhappy. The team wasn't getting the return they expected. A solution was found.

By all appearances, Ljungberg seems a good fit for the Fire. He's playing in a major media market alongside several former internationals in a soccer-specific stadium with a grass pitch. His team is in the thick of a playoff race and he's contributing.

The Sounders are now getting the results they lacked while Ljungberg was here and seem to have a cohesive locker room. The team is playing for a spot in the USOC finals, has advanced to the CCL Group Stage and is in position to make the playoffs for the second straight year.

"Sometimes things for whatever reasons, just like a marriage, sometimes things don’t entirely work out the way you want them," Schmid said. "On the same token, it doesn’t mean one side is wrong or right or that there is a benefit for this side or for that side."

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Regardless of how the marriage ended, let us not forget the greatness of the wedding and honeymoon. However we feel about Ljungberg now, it can not be denied that he played a significant role in launching the MLS franchise. Once the game starts, he should be treated like the opponent he is. Until then, I say he deserves the proper send off he never officially received.