Two games into his MLS career, Chicago Fire defender Arne Friedrich will see a familiar face when he looks down the pitch at BMO Field on Saturday.
Toronto FC captain Torsten Frings and Friedrich won 161 caps for Germany between them. Now both call the MLS home.
For the 32-year-old Friedrich, his one-year contract with the Fire is a soccer adventure after a distinguished club career spent mostly with Hertha Berlin.
While some imports complain about the travel in MLS, Friedrich says that won't be an issue for him.
“For me, it's fun to explore the country and so I don't care about the flights,” he said from Chicago this week.
Friedrich said he and Frings were “good teammates” rather than good friends, since they played on different club sides.
“He's a good guy,” Friedrich said of Frings. “He was a very important guy for the German national team. So we had some good times together.”
Frings, who limits his discussions with the media, offered his take on Friedrich via email through a Toronto FC representative.
“Arne is a quality defender and he was my teammate on the German national team at the 2006 FIFA World Cup and at EURO 2008,” said the 35-year-old Frings.
“He was an important part of our team and I know he will do well for Chicago and in the MLS.”
Friedrich also was an integral part of the German team that finished third at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He played every game and scored his first goal for the national team in the quarter-final against Argentina.
He also left with good memories of South Africa and its people, calling it “a very impressive country.”
While he is still getting his feet wet in MLS, Friedrich — like Frings — appreciates how the North American league is worlds apart from the fishbowl that is German soccer.
“It's perfect,” he said.
He is rarely recognized in the U.S. other than when he runs into Germans.
“The rest, they don't care about me and this is very nice.”
Saturday's game will be the first for Frings since he strained his hamstring in the season-opening loss to Seattle.
Friedrich's first MLS game last Sunday proved to be a wild one in a weather-interrupted 1-1 tie with the visiting Houston Dynamo. The match was delayed for 70 minutes in the 13th minute, only to resume and then be called after 66 minutes.
But already he is impressed with his fellow players in the league.
“The players are very fit, they physically strong and can run for 90 minutes. The level is not that bad, as most people in Germany think,” Friedrich said. “I guess I can help the team when I get totally fit and I'm working on this every day. But the league is definitely interesting”
He was a late arrival this season, joining the Fire a month ago following their season opener in Montreal after contract negotiations were completed.
His arrival is good news for Chicago, which has lost veteran defender Cory Gibbs for an estimated four-to-six months after surgery to repair his right meniscus.
Friedrich paired with second-year defender Jalil Anibaba in the back against Houston.
He wears No. 23, a number that has plenty of significance in Chicago.
Friedrich explains the choice by saying he wore No. 2 when he started with the German national team before getting No. 3.
“And as well I like the performances of Michael Jordan,” he added.
Friedrich played for Hertha from 2002 to 2010, captaining the side and making 231 appearances. He moved to VFL Wolfsburg after Hertha was relegated, playing in 15 games in 2010-11.
His contract was cancelled by mutual consent — “Why is not important,” says Friedrich when asked about it.
He took the next six months off from the game.
“It was my decision,” he said of the break. “Then I thought about my future. I decided to play one more year, in Chicago because I liked the country.”
Friedrich, Frings and New England's Florian Lechner make up the three-man German contingent in MLS.
Toronto FC striker Danny Koevermans knows all about Friedrich.
“Good player,” said the big Dutchman.
Friedrich did not talk to Frings ahead of his move to Chicago, although he did consult former Red Bulls goalie Frank Rost about MLS. Still Toronto FC manager Aron Winter believes Frings' decision to come to MLS midway through last season has made MLS more attractive to other international players.
“I think the moment when we brought Torsten in, the eyes were opened for other players in Europe or overseas that ‘OK, this league that we might have understimated is a good league.’
“And that's why they want to come here. It's a very good league.”
Winter also believes that Chicago coach Frank Klopas looked to Europe and Friedrich “for some players he couldn't find in this league.”
While Winter also rates Friedrich as a good player, he like what he sees in Toronto's uniform.
“I'm very happy with Torsten,” Winter said with a smile.
Friedrich too is happy with his decision.
“Everything here in Chicago is fine. I like the city, I like the club. The teammates are wonderful and kind. I've had a good start.”
Friedrich's girlfriend visited him recently but is back in Berlin now. His parents also came over to see him. He uses the phone and Skype to stay in touch.
He does not rule out a longer stay but says he will let the future take care of itself.
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