Freddie Ljungberg had just sent a hard-driving ball skipping across the DC United goal mouth in the direction of Fredy Montero and several United defenders. Instead of committing to the pass, Montero appeared to pull back at the last second, watching the ball zip past. A frustrated Ljungberg, arms raised, was furious with Montero’s indifferent and seemingly lackluster effort.
On that June 10 night and during that 3-2 loss to lowly DC United, that sequence captured the underlying tension between the two teammates and it was clear something had to change, or someone had to go.
The two Sounders stars had been clashing like two super novas, and the ramifications were shaking the Rave Green faithful. They shared about as much affection as a Liverpool and Manchester United supporter stuck on a holiday together. Their bitter disagreements made the caustic comments between MSNBC’s liberal commentator Rachel Maddow and conservative Fox News host Bill O’Reilly seem like pillow talk.
The Ljungberg-Montero fling was over. The thrill was gone. Their egos clashed. The pitch was becoming too small for both of them. They each wanted the ball played perfectly to their feet — and they both wanted the ball all the time. They didn’t like sharing their toys in the sandbox — let alone sharing the same space on the Xbox Pitch. Each wanted the other to be playing for a Siberian team in the Russian League. Their increasingly divisive relationship was splintering the team.
The 3-2 loss to DC United may not have been the nadir of their partnership but their obvious distaste for each other that night was evident. It seemed a matter of time before Coach Sigi Schmid would have to make some hard decisions — ones that were needed to pull the Sounders out of their death spiral. Clearly, one of the Freddies had to go.
Other factors would influence the decision. Ljungberg arrived late to pre-season training — something that clearly irritated Schmid. Once the season kicked off, Ljungberg was turning his frustration onto the referees during matches. Yes, he was the second most fouled player in the MLS but his pitch rants got so embarrassing that Schmid publicly criticized his star player — a first time for the Sounders coach. Insiders at the Sounders described the Swedish star as prickly, difficult and arrogant with his teammates. No one disputed his work rate or his high standards, but his big-time ego was getting old. Perhaps the final factor: management balked at beginning to negotiate a new contract following the end of the season.
Ljungberg’s last time with the Sounders officially ended July 30. His final appearance was against LA Galaxy, a 3-1 loss on July 4. In between, while behind-the-scenes trade scenarios were swirling, the Sounders asked Ljungberg to practice alone.
“My contract was up in November,” Ljungberg said, in a press conference, following his trade to the Chicago Fire. “There was a lot of interest in me this summer. I asked when were we going to negotiate this contract. I was told after the contract was up. I have to be realistic. I am 33 and I just can’t sit and wait. I passed some stuff by and I did that for Seattle. 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.”
Schmid chose to mold the team around the mercurial Montero and bet the future of the club on the young 21-year-old Colombian striker. It is turning out to be one of best — and one of the sportiest — decisions Schmid has made as head coach of the Sounders, if not one of the shrewdest player decisions in his nearly 20 years as an MLS head coach.
Letting Ljungberg go may well be one of the defining moments of this young team. In a near miraculous reversal of fortune, Montero started scoring and Seattle started winning its MLS matches. Schmid shuffled the lineup and tapped some young players such as midfielder Michael Seamon, who has been a revelation, and defender Jeff Parke, who has steadily and smartly anchored the backline.
Schmid also picked up some marquee players to remold the team in Montero’s image. The Sounders bought Swiss International Blaise Nkufo — Seattle’s second designated player — and a towering and physical target forward. Montero likes to play as a withdrawn forward and is more effective when he has a big center forward holding and dishing the ball to him.
In probably the team’s shrewdest player acquisition (other than signing Montero), the Sounders purchased Uraguayan international Alvaro Fernandez. The new designated player and outside midfielder is fast with his feet and is more in tune with how Montero likes to play the game.
The results since Ljungberg’s departure speak for themselves. Over the last two months in league and Open Cup play, the Sounders have lost only once in 11 games, until losing away to New England, 3-1 on Saturday. Seattle’s second-half surge has propelled it into the second of four wild-card slots. Eight teams qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs.
“We stepped into a good run right after he left,” Schmid said. “But can you say that’s because he left? I don’t think so. I think we might have hit a good run as well. We played some good games early on in the season where we just didn’t finish.”
Montero has clearly thrived the most. He now has ten MLS goals and has been on a scoring tear since Ljungberg left the team. He is also doing the tough things that many forwards ignore — playing defense, hustling to win 50-50 balls and creating many scoring opportunities for his teammates. Nearly overnight, Montero became a
different player. His confidence and audacity returned and it is clear he now pulls the offensive levers for Seattle.
Schmid explained the difference this way. “They’re both players that are most comfortable playing just underneath the striker. It is a role that Ljungberg is in right now. It is a role that Montero is in right now.
“We tried to have that work. We tried to have Ljungberg and Montero play together and it was successful. We made the playoffs, won a U.S. Open Cup (last year). It probably took a little bit of the strength for both players. Now, not being on the same team, each is able to play to his strength a little more.”
And when the two players faced off against each other in Seattle recently, Montero showed off his strengths. He scored two goals, including the dramatic winner in stoppage time. Ljungberg, on the other hand, was relatively quiet except for the boos raining down on him every time he touched the ball.
Following the match, Montero was asked how it felt to score two goals and defeat a team with Ljungberg on the pitch. The Colombian wouldn’t be drawn into the debate, but his brief comment was illuminating: “It was a good team and one player doesn’t make a team.”