Wilhelmsson: Galaxy have tactical intelligence
On 17 June this year, Christian Wilhelmsson was in Saudi Arabia, completing the last year of his contract with Al Hilal. Spending his days in baking hot Riyadh, the Swedish winger was therefore far removed from the big-city glamour of Los Angeles, a whole continent and an ocean to the west.
That same evening, however, Los Angeles Galaxy defeated Portland Timbers 1-0 at the Home Depot Center to clinch only their fourth victory in 14 games, a record that brought the defending champions in for much criticism at the time. "People were even saying we were finished and that our best days were behind us," explained Todd Dunivant, whose goal against Portland was about to usher in a far happier period.
A little less than three months later and those first shoots of recovery were well and truly blooming. The four-time MLS Cup winners were back up and running, displaying the same qualities that won them the title the previous season, and it was against that positive backdrop that Wilhelmsson arrived on 5 September, signing a short-term deal until 2013.
The Sweden international contested his first match in the City of Angels against Portland, but playing with the reserves. Nine days after penning his contract, he then celebrated his MLS debut by notching his maiden goal on American soil – and now, five games on from that superb start, he stands 90 minutes away from MLS glory. Indeed, it would be quite the understatement to say that everything has moved quickly for the former Anderlecht livewire.
"I'm not used to joining a club so late in a season," Wilhelmsson told FIFA.com. "In terms of integration in the team, that hasn't posed any problems. This side has a genuine tactical intelligence. Everyone understands football, and it's not difficult to find your place and add yourself to the foundations already there."
What has proved more challenging for the 32-year-old has been "getting my rhythm back and playing at the level I want to". A member of the Blågult squad at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, not to mention the 2004, 2008 and 2012 UEFA European Championships, he can nonetheless feel his game improving.
"The other players need to get used to me and I still have to find my position during certain situations," he said. "But it's getting better every day. I'm finding space more easily, especially behind Robbie Keane. I know where to go more instinctively and, because of that, I'm getting more passes."
Having struck a pair of doubles for Al Hilal before setting off for Poland and Ukraine with Sweden, Wilhelmsson hardly arrived in Los Angeles out of form. Yet in a league that he has found to be "more physical, and with nearly every player quick and strong", the man who started out as a stubborn adolescent with Mjallby is still not totally satisfied with his performances.
With time ticking down before his first MLS Cup, the slightly-built wide player prefers to focus on what he brings to the team. "It's not as if I'm not creating chances for myself," he explained. "Myself and Sean Franklin know how to find each other perfectly - we combine well and help each other in our defensive duties.
"I like to stay close to the touchline and move inside with the ball. I've played out on the wing my whole career, and that's where I feel the best on the pitch. Sometimes I have to move more into the middle to be able to find Robbie, but as we have players who are good at finding space, that allows me to make the most of the space behind the defence."
As they gear up for their record eighth appearance in the showpiece game, Bruce Arena's Galaxy will be boosted by the experience of old hands David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Keane in their quest to match last season's triumph. "Those senior players helped us not to panic when everyone else was writing us off and when everything could have fallen apart," added Dunivant, who, at 31, has also brought his own experience to bear.
In a similar vein, Wilhelmsson has much to offer Galaxy's bid thanks to his myriad adventures in the game, and his CV features spells in ten different countries, including France, Italy, Spain and England. After Saturday, that CV could well make for even more impressive reading.