Major League Soccer doesn't have that many big-name players, so whenever a new one arrives, there's always a bit of buzz over how that star will adjust to the league, the culture and the media.
By Andrea Canales
Freddie Ljungberg apparently likes long showers.
Most of his teammates have exited the locker room and boarded the team bus by the time he emerges, with a towel wrapped around his waist. The room is filled with reporters who have waited for their chance to interview Major League Soccer's newest high-profile acquisition.
This scene would never happen with David Beckham. After his MLS games, Beckham would appear for a short news conference, but his management team would never allow any locker room interviews.
Worried that Ljungberg might leave quickly to catch up with his other teammates, a group of journalists presses forward, asking questions immediately.
"At least let him get dressed first," protests a female Dutch reporter. Ljungberg obligingly begins to answer questions, however, and she quickly joins the group asking them.
The former Arsenal winger explains his rationale in joining the American league. He didn't make a rash decision, Ljungberg points out.
"I don't want to be pushed at all into making a decision. I'll wake up one day and see what I want to do. A lot of people won't agree with my decision. They would say I should go in two, three years. I guess I wanted something totally different. I played for so long in Europe. I want to do this and at the same time, I didn't want to come in maybe three years when I was maybe over the hill. I want to come and play some good football."
Ljungberg manages to get his shirt on. It's not a fancy designer brand; it's actually a team T-shirt with "Seattle" written across it. He decides to turn to face the semicircle of press around him and remains standing, speaking in a clear voice that carries well, answering a question about why someone would prefer Seattle to LA, Beckham's choice.
"It depends on how you see it. I've been compared with Beckham a lot of times in my years. I would say we're very, very different, though he's a nice man. No disrespect to LA, but that's maybe not the way I like to live. For starters, there's no paparazzi in Seattle. I'm Swedish, so Seattle reminds me of back home. I live on the water and it's nice. It suits what I want to do with my life. I got a little puppy as well."
Talking about his puppy makes Ljungberg smile, a relaxed grin that doesn't indicate he finds the American sports ritual of locker room interviews bizarre or weirdly intrusive, as many foreign players do. One reporter asks if playing for coach Sigi Schmid was an important factor in joining the Sounders.
"I signed before he was appointed as manager. What they told me was that in Seattle, the area is where they play the most soccer, percentage-wise of the population, so if this was going to work anywhere in America, it would be Seattle. So, no, Sigi wasn't appointed when I decided. But of course, that's good."
It's a small thing, but most players sit down while giving locker room interviews. This is fine if there are only a few reporters, but with a large group, it's difficult to hear anything from a seated player because the sound can be blocked even if one is only a few feet away. It's even worse if the player mumbles quietly, like Cuauhtemoc Blanco. Reporters are now stepping on each other to be the next to ask Ljungberg a question, but everyone can hear him well as he answers a query about one day returning to play in Europe.
"I had other offers to go all over Europe, but I decided that I wanted to come to America. They wanted me to sign a longer contract than I did. I signed for two years. My intention is to stay for those two years, whatever happens. Then we'll see."
Truth be told, Ljungberg looks a bit silly, as his towel is still wrapped around him like a sarong. Yet he's more nonchalant and articulate in his T-shirt and towel than many players are in full uniform or game-day suit.
"I like America, and when I'm here I can see the whole of America, how things work, and different sides of it. For me, those kind of things, that's an education for me."
A reporter reminds Ljungberg that he recently compared the level of MLS to the Dutch league.
"I did. I do think if you take PSV, and Feyenoord and Ajax, they might be a little bit higher up, but the level of the league is about the level of the Dutch league. That's how I see it. They don't play the same way - they're more technical in the Dutch league, but the players here, they fight a lot and they're very fit. So I'd say, aside from the top teams, it's about the same."
My brain is scrambling a bit, trying to remember when, if ever, Ljungberg played in the Netherlands. I don't think he has. I think of John O'Brien, who has played in both leagues - well, if five minutes of MLS action really counts. Ljungberg, meanwhile, expands on his answer.
"Everybody has different opinions. I wasn't sure at what level it was before I got here. I watched it on TV and tried to compare it. Since I've been there, that's the level I would compare it to. I've never played in Holland, either, I've just watched it on TV. but people ask me for some sort of equivalent in Europe, and I thought it was the closest one."
Like O'Brien, Ljungberg has struggled with some recurrent injury issues, and that likely played a part in his decision to call time on his international career for Sweden.
"It's like Totti and Scholes, other players who have been playing since they were very young, who decide that retiring internationally will help them stay longer in their club careers."
One journalist presses about a recent statement that could be taken as a hint at a possible return to Sweden. At that, Ljungberg's voice gets sharper - if not downright testy, then at least clearly somewhat exasperated.
"That was misquoted. I said if there's a lot of injuries and they are missing a lot of players, and panic, I would help them out. It's an honor to play for your national team and I've done it, but I'm ready to move on."
Club-wise, Ljungberg has fond memories of his Arsenal days.
"To be invincible the whole season, that's not too bad."
He stretches a leg out slightly when asked about his current health, and gets a slightly sheepish expression on his face. Ljungberg explains.
"I had a little accident. I ran into a wall in training. It's sore. We had advertising boards at the stadium and I didn't see them and ran right into them."
After the self-deprecating admission, Ljungberg is asked another Beckham question.
"We've played against each other a lot of times before. It will be good for the league if he comes back. I hope he's going to come back and hopefully, we can beat them."
Seattle's team officials then close the interview session down, mostly to get Ljungberg, now the only player left in the locker room, on the team bus.
I did manage to get a quick question in to find out Ljungberg's evaluation of his young teammate, Freddy Montero. As all the reporters file back to the press room to write up articles, a consensus reaction emerges about the Swede - Seattle got a good one.
Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of Goal.com North America
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