SEATTLE — Finally, a Seattle Sounders debut that wasn’t extraordinary.
Swedish star Freddie Ljungberg played his first MLS game and first game of any kind in nine months Saturday night, finishing a routine final 29 minutes in the Sounders’ 2-0 victory over Real Salt Lake.
Fredy Montero scored his third goal in two games on a rocket-like strike 16 minutes after Ljungberg entered. And rookie top overall draft choice Steve Zakuani set up Nate Jaqua’s goal with a brilliant move that spun his defender around in the first half, before Ljungberg — the idol of the 21-year-old when Zakuani was on Arsenal’s developmental team in England a few years ago — replaced him in the 61st minute.
“I felt great. It was nice to be back on the pitch,” the 31-year-old Ljungberg said, three months after hip surgery. “Felt like it was a long time.”
Seattle joined the 1998 Chicago Fire as the only MLS expansion teams to begin 2-0-0. That Chicago team ended up winning the league championship.
Real Salt Lake, coming off a 10-10-10 year, produced few scoring chances as the last MLS team to begin its season.
“After a good start, we were not able to settle down the way we wanted to,” said Salt Lake defenseman Chris Wingert said.
Ljungberg, who says he is surprised people on Seattle’s streets recognize him, entered to roars from the Sounders’ second consecutive sellout crowd of 28,548, which stood and cheered throughout most of the raw, damp, 39-degree night. Ljungberg responded by raising both hands above his head and clapping a few times as he jogged onto the pitch for his first game since last June 18, for Sweden against Russia in the European Championship.
“It was a bit touching,” Ljungberg said in his accented English. “The players on the bench said it felt like all of Seattle was in here cheering for me.”
Ljungberg, one of the top offensive midfielders in the English Premier League a few years ago with Arsenal, had surgery in December to repair a torn labrum in his left hip — cartilage that lines the hip socket to stabilize and cushion the joint. It’s the same injury baseball’s Alex Rodriguez just had repaired.
Ljungberg said he is a month ahead of his doctors’ original estimates on his return, thanks to extensive rehabilitation in Sweden.
The league’s fourth-highest paid player at $1.3 million this season touched the ball only a few times, and never near a position to score.
“The touches were good. It was all fine, the footwork,” he said.
He lost possession on tackles twice, drawing boos from the crowd and pleading looks to the referee from the prone star.
“It was quite nice to get some tackles — my hip felt fine,” he said, before adding with a smile, “of course, I don’t like to get tackled.”
Coach Sigi Schmid took Ljungberg’s debut for what it was: a start.
“I mean, it’s his first competitive minutes in a long time,” Schmid said. “It will only get better.”
Ljungberg said he may be able to play 60 or 70 minutes in Seattle’s next game April 4 at Toronto, depending on his stamina.
Montero scored with on a shot that zipped over the hands of leaping goalkeeper Nick Rimando in the 77th minute. Last week in the Sounders’ 3-0 win over New York, the franchise’s striking debut, Montero became the second player to have two goals and an assist in his first MLS game.
Zakuani, the top overall pick in this winter’s draft out of the University of Akron making his first start, turned around baffled defenseman Tony Beltran with a hesitation move at the left of the goal box in the 17th minute. Jaqua then sent the Congo’ native’s perfect centering pass into the net with a one-time shot off his right foot.
Jaqua has six goals in his last six games against Real Salt Lake.
Seattle goalkeeper Kasey Keller preserved his second consecutive shutout with a sliding save in the 49th minute on a breakaway by Yura Movsisyan.
Movsisyan had another golden chance in the 67th minute, in front of the goal box. But he shot a bouncing ball directly into the turf, causing it to bound harmlessly over the crossbar.
The 39-year-old Keller, who grew up on an egg farm outside nearby Olympia, Wash., now has five wins in five starts in Seattle — two for the Sounders and three for the U.S. national team.