Freddie Ljungberg knows all about playing as a visitor in a stadium that he formerly called home.
After playing for nine years with Arsenal in the English Premier League, Ljungberg made his return to Emirates Stadium on New Years Day in 2008 and was greeted with a standing ovation from the Arsenal faithful.
Tonight at Qwest Field, it is expected that Ljungberg will get the same reaction when he walks onto the Xbox Pitch at Qwest Field in a white Chicago Fire kit instead of the rave green one he wore for the Seattle Sounders FC for a year and a half.
“For me that was an amazing day. That was a very emotional day,” Ljungberg said of his return to Emirates. “Now in Seattle, I just need to put aside my friendships for 90-95 minutes and concentrate on my job to play well.”
Whether that same reception will occur won’t be answered until around 7:30 tonight when the match kicks off. However, Ljungberg has gotten a bit of a taste of what to expect since the Fire arrived in Seattle on Thursday evening.
While walking to a coffee shop on Friday, Ljungberg was stopped for pictures and autographs by fans who wished him luck, many of whom likely had No. 10 Sounders FC shirts hanging in their closets at home.
“It proves what a great time I had here and how amazing the fans and the city have been,” Ljungberg said. “You never know at all what reception you’ll get when you get back. We’ll see what happens.”
Today’s date was circled on calendars all over MLS when Ljungberg was traded to the Fire on July 30 and it has proven to be an emotional build up on both sides of the field.
Ljungberg was the first Designated Player signed by the Sounders FC when he was introduced to Seattle in October of 2008, instantly adding to the credibility of a club that already had a player who had a lengthy European resume in goalkeeper Kasey Keller.
That national panache piggybacked on a series of announcements that garnered headlines regionally, including partnerships with Microsoft through the club’s Xbox 360 sponsorship and BELO broadcasting with their television rights going to KING and KONG television with broadcasting legend Kevin Calabro taking play-by-play duties for the inaugural season.
On the field, though, the Sounders FC have turned the page.
“Freddie played a big part in helping us launch the franchise. It was a big signing and a rollout of a bunch of big announcements for this club,” owner/GM Adrian Hanauer said. “He was a big part of us making the playoffs last year. Now he plays for the enemy and our focus is on our team and how we beat he and Chicago on Saturday.”
Added Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid, “It’s emotional, for sure, because he was a member of this team and he was a very important member of this team and helped us get off to a tremendous start. But, at the end of the day, he is not on our team right now and he is with Chicago. We need to worry about our team and about winning the game and he is going to be worried about winning the game for his side.”
Both Ljungberg and the Sounders have prospered from the move. Seattle is unbeaten at 4-0-2 in six MLS matches since Ljungberg’s last match, a 3-1 loss to the LA Galaxy on July 4. Ljungberg, meanwhile, has recaptured the form that earned him MLS Player of the Month honors in October 2009, tallying three assists in four matches. Chicago is 2-1-1 in that stretch.
Some point to Ljungberg’s departure as the turning point for the Sounders, but Schmid doesn’t necessarily see it that way.
“We stepped into a good run right after he left. Can you say that’s because he left? I don’t think so,” he said. “We played some good soccer and did some good things, but sometimes things don’t entirely work out the way you want them, but that doesn’t mean one side was wrong or right.”
In Ljungberg’s place, the Sounders now have two Designated Players in striker Blaise Nkufo and midfielder Alvaro Fernandez - both tremendous players, but without the superstar attraction that Ljungberg brings to the table.
Hanauer doesn’t feel the need to add another “big name” star after Ljungberg’s departure - as long as the Sounders FC keeps winning.
“I think ultimately what our fans want to see is good soccer and wins,” Hanauer said. “Whether that comes in the form of former Arsenal players or finding a gem playing with Deportivo Cali, I think ultimately the fans want good soccer that improves year to year and a team they can be proud of and excited about.”
For Ljungberg’s part, he comes to Seattle on a Chicago team that is battling for a playoff spot. Currently tenth in MLS at 6-6-6 (24 points), Chicago has played three fewer matches than Seattle (8-8-5, 29 points) as the Sounders sit in seventh in MLS.
That tight playoff picture makes it all the more important for players on both sides to focus on the match itself and not the friendships between players on the opposing sides.
And while Ljungberg acknowledges that he looks forward to seeing the reception from the Sounders FC fans, he does so with an eye on the task at hand.
“I’m probably just going to have a big smile on my face. It’s probably going to be weird in one way, no question about it,” he said. “It’s going to be a special thing.”
The game will be televised live on KONG 6/16.