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Ljungberg could start today at BMO
April 4, 2009, 9:53 AM
Filed under: Seattle Sounders FC, Toronto FC

Freddie Ljungberg has long grown accustomed to the spotlight as one of soccer’s most recognizable figures, whether it’s on the pitch delivering precision passes or posing for underwear ads as the former face of Calvin Klein.

Still, the Swedish midfielder was surprised by the rock-star reception he’s received in Seattle.

“It’s been amazing,” Ljungberg said Friday, on the eve of Seattle’s game against host Toronto FC. “When I signed up there was 500 people standing there screaming and greeting me, which I never thought possible maybe in America.

“Even now, how they behave in the stadium, if you meet them on the streets, they’ve all been great. I’m very very pleased.”

Just two games into their inaugural season, the Sounders are taking Major League Soccer by storm. They opened the season 2-0 and drew capacity crowds — averaging more than 30,000 a game — in both appearances at Qwest Field.

Toronto has certainly been no slouch this early season either, opening with a 3-2 win over Kansas City and then drawing Columbus 1-1 last week. TFC will have a sellout crowd on hand in its home opener Saturday in the meeting of the league’s two newest teams.

“I’ve heard it’s a great atmosphere,” Ljungberg said of Toronto’s BMO Field, home to arguably the most fervent fans in the league. “I like to play in front of great fans that are loud. Of course it’s better if they’re home fans, but as long as it’s loud in the stadium, that’s the main thing, so I’m going to enjoy it.”

Ljungberg made his Sounders debut in last weekend’s win over Salt Lake, coming on in the 61st minute. The former Arsenal star had surgery in December to repair a torn labrum in his left hip, and hadn’t played since captaining Sweden in last summer’s European championships.

He could be in the starting lineup against Toronto in the absence of Sounders star Fredy Montero. Prosecutors in Washington state are reviewing a woman’s allegations that Montero assaulted her last month. No charges have been laid and the team said the Colombian striker, recovering from the flu, didn’t make the trip to Toronto.

Ljungberg signed with Seattle in the off-season, becoming the team’s designated player and the league’s fourth-highest-paid player at US$1.3 million per season.

The 31-year-old played for West Ham United of the English Premier League in 2007-08, then reached an agreement with West Ham to terminate his four-year contract after one season.

Before last season, Ljungberg spent nine years with Arsenal, scoring 46 goals in 216 regular-season appearances. The five-foot-nine Swede was voted one of Arsenal’s 50 greatest players in franchise history.

Gunners fans had a popular chant in honour of Ljungberg, who endeared himself with the slash of red dye he wore in his spiked hair. It went to the tune of Frankie Vallie’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You:”

“We love you Freddie, because you’ve got red hair, we love you Freddie because you’re everywhere, we love you Freddie, you’re Arsenal through and through…”

Asked Friday whether he plans to die his hair the Sounders’ green and blue, the shaven-headed Ljungberg laughed.

“That’s many years ago,” he said. “In the end they changed (the song) to: I didn’t have any hair, so I think I’m going to stick with that.”

Ljungberg, who captained Sweden’s national team until he announced his international retirement after Euro 2008, said his role is to be a calming force in the midfield for Seattle — keeping the ball on the ground rather than firing the long balls.

“They want me to have the ball as much as possible,” Ljungberg said. “Sometimes unfortunately it’s a high tempo, people run a lot in America, but people can sometimes get to scared to holding the ball that they pass it too quickly. That’s the main thing we’re going to try to do, make us play enjoyable football for the fans.”

Ljungberg has high hopes for his Sounders squad in its inaugural season, and when he spoke to the owners — including actor Drew Carey, who will be at Saturday’s game — he was sold on the team’s desire to be an immediate force in the MLS.

“They don’t want to just have an expansion team that would not do great, they want to have a plan to make this a great soccer team,” he said. “They have great vision for it… we didn’t want to be a team that was going to be beaten by everyone.

“It’s a great start, but I think that shows what the franchise wants to do, we don’t want to be, `I’m sorry I have to say, a bad team,’ we want to play good football.”

Toronto, meanwhile, opens unbeaten at home for the first time in its three seasons.

They’ll look to end Kasey Keller’s perfect record in goal, and will have midfielders Amado Guevara and Carl Robinson back from international duty to help them do it.

Keller has two shutouts in his first two career MLS starts.

The game is the only one on this weekend’s MLS schedule that features two unbeaten teams.

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