Is life without Ljungberg better for the Sounders? Following Saturday’s 1-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes—the side’s third in a row—the question begs to be asked.
WATCH: Match Highlights
Since Freddie Ljungberg started searching for a new team—eventually moving to the Chicago Fire in a trade—the Sounders have picked up 10 points in four matches in league play, climbing to fourth in the Western Conference standings. They are 5-0-1 in all competitions since Ljungberg’s departure, 3-0-1 in league play. Owners of a dismal 4-8-3 record after a loss to Los Angeles on July 4, Seattle now firmly stand in the playoff picture at 7-8-4.
They are also still alive in the US Open Cup and face a winnable CONCACAF Champions League match in El Salvador on Tuesday to make the group stage of the continental tournament. Without Ljungberg, any observer would see that the Sounders simply look better on the field, keeping possession ably and putting goals away at a commendable rate.
“I am going to let you answer the is-it-addition-by-subtraction question,” general manager Adrian Hanauer told the Tacoma News Tribune earlier this week. “I am only willing to talk about the facts and how we got here which was at the beginning of the year Freddie wanted a new contract. We weren’t willing to do it.”
Hanauer’s comments were echoed by coach Sigi Schmid, who did not want to speculate if the team was better without its iconic Swede.
What can’t be disputed is that Ljungberg’s absence has opened the door for other players, most notably Sanna Nyassi. The Gambian has picked up the slack on the right side of midfield with the Swede now gone.
Nyassi assisted on Fredy Montero’s game-winning goal on Saturday, putting in an accurate first-time cross from the byline that Montero headed home from close range. With three assists in his past three matches, Nyassi has matched Ljungberg’s total for the season.
He played the full 90 minutes against San Jose and held his own against Bobby Convey, both offensively and defensively. As a player who has found himself on the fringes of Schmid’s squad, Nyassi has laid claim to the position and does not look ready to relinquish it.
Saturday’s match also marked the debut of Seattle’s newest signing, Alvaro Fernandez. Ostensibly Ljungberg’s replacement player, the new designated player was solid in his 21 minutes. He had one chance in front of goal, but a heavy first touch allowed the Earthquakes defense to recover before he could get his shot off.
In the admittedly small sample size, the Uruguayan also seemed to adapt to the physicality of the league, something Ljungberg struggled to do in his time in Seattle.
The Sounders other DP, Blaise Nkufo, started and played 85 minutes, coming within inches of a goal in the second half.
While there may be other factors at play, the strong performances of the team’s newcomers and the positive results over the past few weeks show the club hasn’t missed a beat in Ljungberg’s absence. Against San Jose, the Sounders picked up a win against a Western Conference opponent that started the day ahead of them in the standings.
“The thing about this league is that you have so much parity,” goalkeeper Kasey Keller said. “You get yourselves on a good run, you shoot up the table, regardless of where your position is.”
Montero, who has four goals and five assists in the past eight games, credited the team’s effort with Seattle’s recent run of form.
“These points are vital for us especially fighting for the playoffs,” Montero said. “As a team we’re doing well right now and we want to keep working hard. Everyone is working together and stepping up their game collectively.”