Welcome to Club 23

The Chicago Fire's latest import has a world-class pedigree--and an iconic number. Can he help the team return to the playoffs?

April 15, 2012|By Leonor Vivanco | RedEye

No. 23 on a sports jersey is special in Chicago.

Michael Jordan brought the Bulls a dynasty with that number. Devin Hester ran with it to the Super Bowl, although the Bears didn't win that year. Cubs legend Ryne Sandberg also wore that number, as did White Sox fielder Jermaine Dye when he was named MVP of the 2005 World Series.

Now, Arne Friedrich (pronounced Ar-nuh Freed-rick)—the Chicago Fire's newly signed German defender—wants to lead the team to the playoffs with those iconic digits.

"It's a hard way to go. When we have reached it, we can win everything," he said at Toyota Park in Bridgeview.

Dressed comfortably in jeans and a blue zip-up sweatshirt after a Friday practice in March, the floppy-haired Friedrich is polite and friendly. But make no mistake, he is all business on the field.

The arrival of Friedrich, who moved to Chicago from Berlin last month, comes as the Fire have struggled to make the playoffs the past two seasons despite a push late last year. The team advanced to the conference finals in 2007, 2008 and 2009 but has come up short since then. Friedrich, under contract for one year, is expected to make his Major League Soccer debut—and perhaps kick-start the team's prospects—on Sunday in a home game against the Houston Dynamo.

The defender brings an impressive resume that spans a dozen years—nearly all of them spent on rosters of top-tier German teams, including Bundesliga's Hertha BSC, a club that has been around since the turn of the 20th century. The 32-year-old, who grew up idolizing Argentina's Diego Maradona, has been named by Fox Soccer as one of the top MLS newcomers to watch this year.

He has gone head to head with (and defeated) soccer stars David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Perhaps his biggest feat is appearing in 82 outings for Germany's national team in international matches. He played in two European championship tournaments, helped Germany finish in third place in the 2006 World Cup and scored a goal in a 2010 World Cup quarterfinal win, knocking out Argentina.

Friedrich, who at age 5 started kicking around the ball in the streets of Bad Oeynhausen in western Germany, has so far escaped recognition in his first month in Chicago. He walked unnoticed among the St. Patrick's Dayrevelers in Millennium Park last month, rode a sightseeing bus tour downtown and attended a Blackhawks game like an ordinary fan. It's the first time in a decade he's been able to roam freely and anonymously, he said.

"In the States, soccer is not so important than other sports and nobody knows me here," Friedrich said. "It's very nice and I can go out for dinner in a quiet—in a silent area.

"There's not so much hurry in the city and the people are very nice and very kind. Everybody asked you how you are feeling and you have so many small talks and this is what I like. You have the big skyline here," said Friedrich, who lives in Lincoln Park.

The first time he visited Chicago was this year to meet with Fire staff and a trainer.

"When I saw the city from the airplane, it was amazing, I fell in love the first time," he said.

He's talked to Fire teammate Pavel Pardo and former New York Red Bulls goalkeeper Frank Rost, who both played in Germany, about his decision to come to the MLS and how playing in Europe compares with the U.S.

"The difference between the leagues in Europe is not so big as I have expected it. Physically they are very strong in the MLS," he said. "It's a good chance to get a new experience here and so far I like the city very, very much and as well the club. There's so many nice people here and good teammates."

Friedrich has fit into the team and is a leader who sets an example for younger players by taking care of his body and carrying himself in a professional way, said team captain Logan Pause.

While Friedrich has been plagued by injuries and recovered from knee, foot, and back surgeries in the past, he is proving to be resilient.

"You can tell he wants to be here, that he's excited about being here," Pause said. "He plays another cog in the wheel of what we're trying to do, someone with experience, someone who's played at the highest level and that has won. You want winners on your team."

With a need to strengthen the area down the middle of the field, Coach Frank Klopas zeroed in on Friedrich and called the decision to bring him to Chicago a "no-brainer."

"It's a good move because he's a very good player," Klopas said. "He's at a very good age that he's got a lot more to offer to any team."

lvivanco@tribune.com | @lvivanco

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