BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Call it a lack of urgency, physicality or just plain bite, the Fire have missed something significant while struggling through a confusing 2010 season.
There are obvious reasons for the Fire’s sluggish follow-up to a third straight Eastern Conference finals berth from 2009. The team lost starter Chris Rolfe to a career in Denmark, they’ve struggled to adapt fully to the loss of former Best XI selection Bakary Soumare and new head coach Carlos de los Cobos is a far cry from defensive-minded former boss Denis Hamlett, a fixture with the Fire for more than a decade.
But something intangible has certainly been missing from a Fire club just one penalty kick from reaching the MLS Cup last year. For C.J. Brown, the veteran captain now in his 13th and perhaps final season spent solely with the Fire, the club’s recent personnel shakeups could be the answer.
“There’s definitely a new energy here, but there’s a lot of nervous energy,” Brown said. “Guys are looking around and they can see we’re making moves, so everyone has to push a little harder. The whole fighting attitude just hasn’t been there this season. But now, it seems to be picking up.”
[inline_node:315390]The biggest catalyst for that, according to Brown, is Freddie Ljungberg. The prized former Seattle Sounders Designated Player parted ways with Seattle and spurned a return to Europe to suit up for Chicago, and logged a full 90 minutes in his home debut Sunday, a scoreless draw against the Red Bulls.
WATCH: FULL MATCH HIGHLIGHTS
“The guys have been great, and I feel like I’m working well with some of the guys,” said Ljungberg, who played in a central attacking role in his first start with the club. “They really talk all the time, and they try to get me the ball and it works really well.”
“Of course there are things to learn,” he added. “Sometimes I get a ball and I want to hit it straight away, and people aren’t ready for it. But that’s something that will get better. I was really happy to play … it was electric out there.”
Ljungberg joined the team last weekend and came off the bench in the Fire’s 3-2 upset over the LA Galaxy and, according to his new Fire teammates, has acclimated easily into the club’s system and locker room.
With a rugged and physical style of play, he also echoes former Fire players like Peter Nowak or Chris Armas, who carved out the team’s identity years ago but have since left a noticeable hole in their absence.
“He’s not necessarily old school, but he has that mentality," Brown said. "On the field, he’s a [handful], and he pushes guys to win. I like that in him. If you’re fighting out there on the field, you’re going to fight when the game comes. We’ve missed that.”
Both Ljungberg and fellow Designated Player Nery Castillo saw significant time in Sunday’s match, but it’s relatively unclear where both men fit into a Fire lineup suddenly now very much in flux.
What is clear, though, is that Ljungberg brings a technical savvy in the midfield that has been lacking for the team since Cuauhtémoc Blanco left at the end of last season. Youngster Baggio Husidic has filled in admirably in just his third season in the league, but Ljungberg’s skills and professionalism are impossible to ignore.
“He sees the field so well, and he’s not afraid to get in close and get in tight with other guys and mix it up,” striker Brian McBride said. “His greatest asset for us, though, is his ability to hold the ball and keep possession, and be dynamic while doing it. We have a lot of different talented players on this team, but Freddie’s really all-together.”
Said midfielder Logan Pause: “He brings a professionalism we were lacking. It’s just a different feel.”
[inline_node:315102]Ljungberg mixed it up early and often on Sunday, pouring through the Red Bulls midfield in moments and threatening a New York back line that at times was forced simply to foul him to quell the threat.
And he nearly connected with McBride for a goal in the 43rd minute, a missed chance that would have sent Toyota Park into a frenzy. McBride skipped a cross into the box in transition to a streaking Ljungberg, who harmlessly popped the ball wide of the net off his left shin.
Ljungberg laid sullenly on the turf for an instant and then popped back up, giving the thumbs up to McBride for a chance missed this time, but perhaps waiting to happen for Chicago in the future.
“Unfortunately it came with pace and it just bounced straight up off my shin,” Ljungberg said. “It was a pity, but that’s how it was. It would have been nice.”
But the short-term result certainly doesn’t mean as much as the long-term effects for the Fire, who have hitched at least some of their hopes for a resurrection to a player they’re confident can help the club find an identity that’s been missing since March.
“We’re not just making moves to make moves,” Pause said. “Where we are in the standings, we need help. And I definitely think we got it.”