CHICAGO – Few inside the Chicago Fire circle were surprised by the club’s move to land Nery Castillo, a promising Mexican Designated Player looking for something to prove and a natural fit at Toyota Park.
But when word came that the club had also added Freddie Ljungberg, the beloved Swedish international who piloted the Seattle Sounders into the postseason last year, it was the surprise power play of an already busy month of moves. MLSsoccer.com spoke with Fire technical director Frank Klopas about the first DP trade in league history and how Ljungberg could bolster the Fire’s bid for the postseason.
MLSsoccer.com: By the time you started looking at getting Freddie, the Nery Castillo deal was done, right?
Klopas: Right. I don’t know if we’d actually signed Nery, but the talks were done, and we were very close. And it was no secret that something was going on between Freddie and Seattle, and [Fire owner] Andrew Hauptman had heard it too. And he has a good relationship with [Sounders GM] Adrian Hanauer, who had spoken very highly about Freddie as a person and a player.
Once we knew we had the opportunity and we got the go-ahead from Adrian, we just wanted the chance to sit down with Freddie and have an honest conversation, face to face. This was only a few weeks ago, it all happened very fast. It was Andrew, myself and Freddie in Los Angeles. Once we had that conversation, we knew we wanted him, and that we had to get it done.
[inline_node:314811]MLSsoccer.com: Freddie had already had a number of things said about him after his time in Seattle. What was it about the conversation that sold you?
Klopas: When you talk to him, you realize he’s a pretty honest guy with integrity. He wants to win. He’d been at Toyota Park and he liked the atmosphere here, and he liked Chicago. I think he wanted the opportunity to play on grass and the opportunity to win in a great city like this.
He had a great experience with the fans in Seattle and he had a great time there. It wasn’t like he was sitting there bad-mouthing Seattle or anyone up there. He’s a professional. He had a great time there, but maybe there were some things that he didn’t like. It was also a change for him to get off of playing on turf, and I think he liked that.
And it fit for the position we were looking for. We wanted someone more in the middle to help Nery make the impact we want from him. It really was a perfect fit for us and perfect timing.
MLSsoccer.com: Were you looking at other guys like Ljungberg?
Klopas: We were. We were looking at forwards and guys in the midfield. But Freddie is different in a lot of ways. I never like to compare players, but in how he’s very dynamic with the ball when he’s running at guys, he reminds me a lot of Peter Nowak from back in the day. It’s almost like Freddie’s faster running with the ball, he can get by guys and he just has that great vision. The timing of his passes and when to play the ball, it’s always the right time and the right pace on the ball. We knew he would fit in great with the team, and now you can see it’s a different team.
MLSsoccer.com: What kind of questions did he have for you?
Klopas: He just wanted to know about the structure here, and about our philosophy of how we want to play. He’s a guy who came from a system at Arsenal where it was all about playing football. We’ve said that from the beginning, but it’s easier said than done. We told him we believe a lot in our youth system and our academy, and that we believe that’s the future for us. And he said it reminded him a lot of Arsenal, the way Arsène Wenger had done things with Arsenal, and I think he liked that.
MLSsoccer.com: And he was already match fit, and there wasn’t going to be an acclimation process. That had to be an extra bonus, right?
Klopas: Right. Look at Nery right now. He finished with Shakhtar Donetsk already five weeks ago, so he’s sitting around doing nothing. Then by the time you start talking to him and talking to Shakhtar, and now you’re looking at six weeks doing nothing. It’s a whole process.
So to get a guy within the league is the easiest thing. You’re going to get a guy who’s accustomed to the league, he’s fit, he has his International Transfer Certificate.
[inline_node:315102]MLSsoccer.com: What were the conversations like about where he would play?
Klopas: He wants to be more inside, in a central role. I know they used him out wide in Champions League games with Arsenal, but he came inside a little, and that’s where he wants to play now. He’s not 25 anymore, where you can put him on the outside and he’s running up and down for 90 minutes. He’s a different player now. He still has some of that pace, but he’s a smarter player, the kind of guy who can make the final pass. But he’s not 25 anymore; we’ll use guys like Patrick Nyarko and Marco Pappa on the outside.
MLSsoccer.com: When did you tell the players you had closed the deal?
Klopas: The team was going to Los Angeles, and normally for West Coast trips we go two days before. So for that Sunday game (Aug. 1), we were going on Friday. And right before the team left, we were very close to getting the deal done. We were just finalizing everything, so I was going to stay behind and not fly with the team.
I didn’t really say anything to the guys about who he was. I just told them that we were signing a new player, a Designated Player, but I couldn’t say right then because it wasn’t done. I just told them, "By the time you guys land, you’ll know who it is, because it’ll be out there."
We got it done late Friday night. We were calling over to the league office, and I’m sure they were looking down at their phones saying, "Oh man, this guy’s calling again?" We were driving them crazy, because we wanted to get him in as soon as possible. We knew Nery wasn’t ready for that game, and we knew Freddie would come in and make a difference right away.
MLSsoccer.com: Some of the Fire players say that Ljungberg reminds them of Nowak and other former Fire players, in that he has some bite to him. Do you agree?
Klopas: That was something else we liked about him. You can tell he’s a real competitor. And you don’t get to the level he’s been to without all those qualities. You can have all the talent in the world, but you go nowhere without those qualities. He does remind me a little of Nowak in that way, not only in his bite, but with his leadership too. He brings something different.
I think it’s a good signing. It’s a very good signing. The guy is an excellent player. We try very hard to bring players like him to the team, we just have to hope the guys come together. Our team is so much better with the moves we made, but this league isn’t easy. There are a lot of tough games left, so we just have to wait and see.