Almost exactly three months to the day after Erik Friberg played his first match for Sounders FC in March of 2011, the adroit Swede scored his first goal in Seattle. Thanks to a truncated stay, it was also his only goal in Seattle.
Roger Levesque came off the bench to score twice in that match, an eventual 4-2 win over the New York Red Bulls, and the thing Levesque remembers best is Friberg wrapping a lovely ball around keeper Greg Sutton and tucking it to bed just inside the far post. Just 11 minutes in, Friberg displayed everything in his game Sounders FC had been so happy to acquire. His initial settling touch to find space. His cut-back to find a shot just outside the box. And his bending ball that was more feather than anvil.
“I think it was just a glimpse into what Erik’s capable of,” Levesque said.
But Seattle fans didn’t get to watch for long. After a 2011 season that earned him scads of admirers in Seattle, Friberg was gone, back to Sweden to play for Malmö FF. His torrid pace never slowed in Europe, but neither did his connection to a few of his former Seattle teammates, with whom he kept up a rapport. While Sounders FC marched on, Friberg won a title in Sweden in 2013 with Malmö, earning the moniker “Mr. 100%” for scoring on all six of his shots. He played in UEFA Champions League qualifying. He earned a call-up to the Swedish national team. Eventually, he earned a short-lived move to Bologna in Italy’s Serie A.
But Friberg couldn’t ignore the enchanting siren song of Seattle for long. Now, the quality midfielder is back with Sounders FC to reprise his standout role from 2011 that cast him as a steady midfield presence with the ability to play multiple positions in a pinch. And Seattle couldn’t be much happier he was available.
“Erik’s been in touch with guys in the club since he left,” said Garth Lagerwey, Sounders FC General Manager & President of Soccer. “We’ve kept tabs on him. In midseason acquisitions, ideally you want him to speak English. Maybe they’ve played outside their home country for at least some period, or at least have some international experience just looking at the short-term adjustment they’re going to have. Erik obviously checks all of those boxes and many more. He’s played on the team, so he has a comfort level not just with the country, but with the system.”
Indeed, Friberg played an important role in the midfield in 2011, when Sounders FC won 18 regular season games and finished second in the Supporter’s Shield race. Holdovers like Zach Scott and Brad Evans know well what Friberg brings to the table, like a clinician’s eye for the game despite so much athletic prowess. In 2011, that served this team in its own way, but it probably means even more now. Seattle is more interested and able to play keep-away now, which suits Friberg’s style of play. But without the Osvaldo Alonso-Gonzalo Pineda pairing over the last three MLS matches due to niggling injuries, Seattle’s lost all three and struggled to knit together its customarily elaborate passages of possession. Players like Cristian Roldan and Micheal Azira have done well in their stead, but that possessional impetus hasn’t quite been the same.
This, remember, was a team when healthy that scored three goals resulting from at least 17 consecutive passes over the first two months of the season. Nobody else in MLS can match that, still.
Enter Friberg. There aren’t many more predisposed to play calmly than the technical Swede, who Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid said will step in immediately and compete for starting minutes. Whether that’s out wide or in the middle as more of a box-to-box guy, Sounders FC no doubt can find a place for him.
“He had an interest in coming back,” Schmid said. “He always enjoyed his time here. He had a successful time back in Europe. He got a couple caps for Sweden, got to play in the Italian top division as well. So I think he’s a player that can help us in midfield. The guys who played with him really liked him, so I think he’ll fit in well, be a good character guy for our locker room.”
And at a time like this, levity in the locker room is critical. Sounders FC lost just four matches in its first 16 games of the season, and the team matched that total in the last two weeks alone. Sounders FC has played each of its last three league games with zero Designated Players, and so Schmid’s had to reach deep into his roster for starters. Seattle signed former S2 striker Andy Craven last week - Craven’s already gotten MLS minutes - and S2 recently acquired three Kitsap Pumas players on loan to fill out the roster for a match.
But Friberg’s a welcome addition in more than just the obvious ways. Taylor Graham understands that as well as anyone.
“Locker rooms are pretty positive for the most part when results are going your way,” said Graham, a former seven-year MLS veteran who was with the team in 2011. “The real test of your locker room, the strength of it, is during the tough times, and we’re in one of those stretches right now. And so adding somebody who’s going to increase accountability, and to bring in just a different perspective and a different level of experience, it’s a great play.”
Friberg will require at least some adjustment. He hasn’t played a competitive match since May, and almost the entire roster has turned over since he last pulled on a Sounders FC jersey on Oct. 8, 2011. But if he can reprise the role he played that year - and maybe even bag another curling goal or two - Sounders FC will enjoy a welcome case of deja vu.
“When you think of summer transfers, sometimes there’s just an assimilation process that takes place with the league and the club and the players,” Graham said. “I don’t think we’re going to see that at all with Erik.”