He could fill the role he was brought here to do — help run the midfield.
As the Sounders prepare for the opening game against the LA Galaxy, recent injuries among midfield starters is creating some heartburn for Coach Sigi Schmid but also opportunity for others.
The status of Steve Zakuani remains unclear after he suffered a leg injury in Wednesday’s Community Shield match against the Colorado Rapids. Brad Evans is likely out for a couple weeks with leg strain, though Schmid offered an outside possibility that Evans could play Tuesday. And Michael Fucito, who can play forward or wing, is definitely on the sidelines for three weeks.
That creates an immediate opportunity for Swedish midfielder Erik Friberg to partner with Osvaldo Alonso in the middle of the pitch. The Swede’s play has been impressive during the preseason build up. His insertion into the starting lineup might even help the coach to sleep better at night. At the very least, it means one less problem for Schmid as he prepares his team for a stern test against the Galaxy.
With Evans out, Friberg fits into Schmid’s formation almost effortlessly. Though stylistically a different player than Evans, the Swede is similar to the American in this respect — they both like to get forward, they both like to attack, they both like to create, they both like to win balls and they both like to run.
But the similarities end there. Evans is bigger, more physical, is a solid finisher who can score goals and probably a stronger defender. His best attribute is making late, surging runs into the box, and he put that on display against Colorado in the first half. Even though his late runs didn’t necessarily lead to threatening scoring chances, his presence did shake up the Colorado defense. It’s now only a matter of time before he connects with his teammates and buries a couple goals.
Friberg, on the other hand, is a silky player. He’s less physical and relies on his technical skills and vision to distribute the ball. He is more of a creator than a finisher, a player who sees the spaces and is economical with the ball. His first touch is so natural, particularly under pressure.
“I think Friberg has that little touch, where hes delicate,” said Chris Henderson, Sounders technical director. “Well see if that comes out of him.”
That delicate touch was evident in the second half of the Colorado match, when Friberg set up Fredy Montero for the winning goal. The play started with a long ball to O’Brian White, who knocked it down to the onrushing Friberg at the top of 18-yard box. Then Friberg spotted Montero on his right and slipped it through a tiny gap with the perfect pace for the Colombian to take one touch to set up his shot and the second one to bury it in the back of the net.
“OB (White) takes it off the chest and it’s a good run from Fredy, and I just passed it,” Friberg said, in characteristic understatement (he is still adjusting to American English and to the American lifestyle). “It was a good goal.”
Friberg said he likes to find the “good space” in the midfield in which to operate and is fine going forward or dropping back to support the back line. Partnering with Alonso, he said, allows him to push forward. “Hes a fantastic player,” Friberg said of his Cuban teammate. “When I play with him he is more defensive, he gets the ball from backline player, and I want the ball a little bit higher.”
Henderson spotted Friberg last season when he was playing in the Swedish First Division for BK Häcken. He noticed subtle nuances about his game that he believed could help the Sounders in the center of the pitch.
“I think hes one of those guys who sees the short game, but also while its going on, he’s seeing the long game,” Henderson said. “He gets rid of it, and then he gets in a good position. I think the reading of the game and the smarts from playing in a different league have been important in his development. I think hes going to be a solid, solid player and get a lot of minutes for us.”
Like Schmid has noted recently, Henderson said he can envision Friberg and Evans playing together. They are different players but share the same attacking ambition. Evans can play out wide and Friberg can play on the left side because he is two-footed, Henderson said. The combination could be powerful.
“Evans has those long striding runs out of the midfield and into the gaps whereas Friberg is a leader more underneath and in reading the game,” Henderson said. “Brad adds little flicks and layoffs and Friberg is really clean with his distribution. They both get into the box.”
Friberg, 25, said he’s happy to play wherever the coach puts him. He’s feeling more fit and he’s looking forward to the start of the regular season and a bit more regularity to his life. His girlfriend recently arrived here, he said, so that will help restore some normalcy. “Its been difficult to stay at a hotel for six and seven weeks,” he said. “But Ive gotten my apartment now. Its going to be easier. You train and go home.”
From what he’s experienced so far, Friberg is impressed with the MLS. But there are some differences. “Its like the Swedish first division,” he said. “Maybe the Swedish league is more technical, a more tactical game. Here it is more faster, more direct and more physical.”
For example, he said the Colorado keeper “almost killed me in the game” just two minutes after he had entered for an injured Evans. “I dont know what happened,” he joked, a day later. “But it hurts.”
Bumps and bruises aside, Friberg says his goal is to play as much as possible and he hopes to get the starting nod against Los Angeles on Tuesday. He says doesn’t know too much about The Galaxy other than David Beckham and Landon Donovan. But he says he’s not worried.
“I know its a good team,” he said. But in his straight forward analysis, the path to victory is simple: “We need to play as we played like yesterday (against Colorado) and we need to work hard and work for each other, we need to score goals, and well win the game.”