No one associated with Sounders FC would come right out and say it, but Los Angeles Galaxy coach Bruce Arena did: The Sounders got better when they traded designated player Freddie Ljungberg to Chicago.
“In my view – and probably in their view – that’s been a difference in their team,” Arena said. “I think they turned the keys over to Fredy Montero, as opposed to Freddie Ljungberg, and in my opinion that’s made a significant difference in that team – for whatever reason, I couldn’t tell you exactly; only they know. But to me there was a kind of change in the leadership on the field and who your guy was going to be. And I think Fredy Montero has accepted the challenge and the responsibility of being a leader on that team, and he’s gotten it done.”
There was much to be done. The Sounders had staggered through the first part of the season and hit their low point July 4 in a 3-1 loss at Los Angeles, which dropped them to 4-8-3.
That game also marked Ljungberg’s final appearance as a Sounder.
Since then, his former club has gone 10-2-3 in MLS games.
Ljungberg sat out the two games after L.A. with what was called an ankle injury, and Seattle earned a home draw against Dallas and a road win at D.C. United with a largely revamped lineup.
Five days later, the club announced that Ljungberg had been given permission to seek a deal with another club – and while he did so the Sounders took another win against Colorado.
Five days later, the club announced Ljungberg had been traded to Chicago for a conditional draft pick. They have gone 8-2-2 since.
Coach Sigi Schmid points out that Ljungberg was only one of several personnel changes in July.
“We got some guys back from injury,” he said. “We got (Nate) Jaqua back from injury about that time, we got (Osvaldo) Alonso back, we added some players, certainly with (designated players Blaise) Nkufo and (Alvaro) Fernandez.”
The calendar confirms all this, and more.
When Ljungberg moved out of the starting lineup, it was Jaqua who stepped into his forward spot, and Alonso returned as a reserve. Two games later, Nkufo made his Sounders debut. The next game Fernandez stepped in, and the Sounders played with two designated players for the first time. Nathan Sturgis moved into the starting lineup at midfield, Patrick Ianni replaced Tyrone Marshall on the back line, and Sanna Nyassi began finishing his chances.
Even the holdovers suddenly oozed urgency.
“When we traded Freddie, I think the message that reverberated from the locker room was, ‘Well, if he’s moving on, any of us could be moving on,’” Schmid said. “And I think everybody dug down a little bit and gave 10-15 percent more, maybe, than they were giving before. So the sum of the parts became a stronger team.”
Players who feared for their jobs weren’t wrong.
After being viewed as wondrous expansion overachievers in 2009, what was largely the same cast of characters entered 2010 with great expectations.
What was not anticipated was regression, complacency or any other version of a sophomore jinx.
“I think that there was a bit of a hangover from Year One,” general manager Adrian Hanauer said. “We probably thought that we were a little bit better than we were. ... I think it started with harder work, (around) midseason. I think a lot of our players, a lot of our leaders, realized that we were heading for disaster and it was time to put up or shut up.”
Owner Joe Roth sent a clear signal that disaster would not come without consequences. In one midseason interview, Schmid implied that no jobs were guaranteed, not even his.
And Hanauer confirms that if the exit of Ljungberg and the entrances of Nkufo and Fernandez weren’t enough, more roster moves would have followed.
“I wouldn’t say blowing it up,” he said. “We knew that we had a good team and a good core of players, so we would not have blown it up. But we would have been a little bit more aggressive.”
However, the Sounders’ ship righted so quickly that there suddenly seemed no reason to tinker.
And the wins kept coming.
The Sounders clinched a playoff spot with two games to spare and took a league-high five-game winning streak into the regular-season finale at Houston, where they lost, 2-1.
By the end, the weak half and the strong half combined for a 14-10-6 overall record – two wins and two points in the standings beyond what they achieved in their celebratory 2009 season.
However, they also dropped from third to fourth in the Western Conference and must face top-seeded Los Angeles in the first round of the playoffs. That home-and-away aggregate-score series starts at 5 p.m. Sunday at Qwest Field.
“I think there’s multiple things that changed the season,” captain Kasey Keller said. “It’s easy to go back and say maybe this and maybe that. But I’m just proud of the guys that did change the season. ... The L.A. game, that loss there really kind of changed things for us. That was the bottom point where we turned the season around. What a great second-half of the season, and that’s what we’re really building on here.”