Late Wednesday, the league confirmed: Marco Pappa is coming back to Major League Soccer. Pending a new visa, his international transfer certificate, and a successful physical, the former Chicago Fire attacker will be returning to North America, though his destination is unclear. With another former MLS midfielder potentially returning from Northern Europe, it’s unclear the Seattle Sounders will snap up the Guatemalan international.
The Sounders have that right thanks to the Mauro Rosales trade, a deal which gave the team the second pick in the allocation order. A former MLS player sold outside the league, Pappa has to come back through that special dispersal process. With Philadelphia having used the order’s first pick (acquired from D.C. United) to select Maurice Edu, it’s Seattle’s turn. By Friday, the Sounders must decide whether they want Pappa, a decision that would send them to the back of the allocation line.
Thanks to some sleuthing from a Pacific Northwest blog, it’s a well-known secret that former Sounder Erik Friberg has been contacted by Seattle about a return to MLS. Like Pappa, he would have to go though allocation, having been sold to Malmö (Sweden) in Dec. 2011. That puts Seattle in a position to choose. If they really want Friberg, they need to get him committed to a return, else risk passing on Pappa in the face of an uncertain reward. If they prefer Pappa, they’ll lose their chance to reacquire Friberg.
For those that remember 2011 (when both players were in Major League Soccer), the decision may seem like an easy one. At least, it seems easy on the surface. While Friberg was a solid player for Seattle, he was also a somewhat unremarkable one, scoring only once in 34 all-competition appearances during his only season on Puget Sound. Pappa, on the other hand, was an All-Star and scored 26 goals over four seasons. Why would Seattle pass on Pappa to select Friberg?
(Note: We’re going to put salary, a very important part, aside, as we have no idea what Pappa will make or what Seattle’s offered Friberg.)
There are a number of reasons, perhaps most important of which is fit. If Seattle really does stick with their diamond midfield (and that’s still very much an if), Friberg fills a current hole. Aside from Brad Evans, Seattle doesn’t have a starting-caliber player to serve as one of the carilleros in front of Osvaldo Alonso. Whereas Friberg can slide into that spot on the left side of the diamond (and be a significant upgrade to the departed Adam Moffat), Pappa can not.
Pappa’s best role would be the one currently carved out for Dempsey, though that would have the virtue of forcing the U.S. international to a forward’s spot. (It’s also not the spot Pappa excelled in with the Fire.) Though Sigi Schmid was reluctant to use Dempsey as a forward last year, even infamously starting Shalrie Joseph up top in the Sounders’ last game of the season, it would be Dempsey’s best position in this hypothetical set up. It would also keep the team from need both needing a.) a mercurial Obafemi Martins to live up to his paycheck, and b.) Kenny Cooper to be 2012 Kenny Cooper, not the guy who struggled in various places between 2009 and 2013.
Beyond positional fit, Seattle knows Friberg. He fits off the field, too. For a team trying to address the terrible locker room dynamic that compounded 2013’s tailspin, that’s important. Based on how Friberg assimilated in 2011, it’s safe to assume he’s somebody who will come in, play a role, and work to excel in that spot. He’s unlikely to demand a specific kind of role be carved out.
That attitude helped Friberg develop a loyal following among hardcore Sounders fans, whose excitement about the potential reunion is reflected in gifs such as this (as embedded in the previously linked post):
But perhaps the most important (and most obvious) reason the 2011 versions of Pappa and Friberg many not be relevant: 2012 and 2013 happened. During that time, Friberg went to Malmö, was a regular starter on teams that finished third and first, and (last year) became a goal scoring threat. His six goals in 27 games were a career high.
That rate may overstate his scoring potential, but compare that performance to what Pappa’s done since moving to Europe. Over 16 months, Pappa made 12 appearances, two starts, and failed to score a goal. While you can argue that there’s a big difference between the Dutch league (the Eredivisie) and Sweden’s (the Allsvenskan), the difference in competition at Heerenveen and Malmö is not as great. Friberg has played well in his last two years in Europe. Pappa has not played at all.
Put it all together, and the guy who seemed an inferior player in 2011 looks like the better choice now. He’s a better fit on the field, a known personality within the organization, and has played much better over the last two years. Pappa’s talent means he has a greater upside, but to achieve that upside in Seattle, the Sounders may have to change the on-field plan they’ve been developing since Dempsey’s arrival. While that might not be a bad idea, it’s one the Sounders might not be willing to pursue.
That willingness will be reflected in how the next two days play out. Seattle has until Friday to decide if they’re going to select Pappa. If they pass, that will be a strong indication Friberg’s coming back. If they don’t, either Friberg has elected to stay in Europe (with Italy rumored to be an option) or Seattle has swung for the fences with Pappa.