A well-traveled Wilhelmsson hopes to keep Galaxy moving in playoffs


Perhaps 32-year-old Galaxy winger Christian Wilhelmsson hasn’t seen it all in soccer. But he has come close.

The journeyman Swede has played professionally in nine countries during his 15-year career.

That includes stints in England, Spain and Italy – arguably the three best leagues in the world. He joined the Galaxy in September from Saudi Arabian club Al-Hilal after wrapping up his third season for the Riyadh-based team.

Wilhelmsson, preparing for the Galaxy’s MLS knockout playoff game against Vancouver on Thursday, said he was pleasantly surprised by the quality of play he encountered in the Middle East.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “It was nice football.”

While there are many cultural differences between Europe and the Middle East, Wilhelmsson said soccer isn’t one of them, describing Saudi fans as “fanatic.”

“It’s like a second religion for them,” he said. “They love you when it’s going well and hate you when it’s going bad – as it should be.”

Though women aren’t allowed to attend matches in Saudi Arabia, Wilhelmsson said that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in the sport.

“There’s a lot of female supporters even though they don’t come to the game,” he said. “There’s a lot watching on television.”

When his contract was up with Al-Hilal, the prospect of moving to the United States seemed an attractive proposition.

“This felt like a great challenge,” Wilhelmsson said, adding that the influx of more European and South American players combined with young American talent has raised the level of play in MLS.

“It’s progressing and it’s getting better,” he said. “There are a lot of good athletes.”

Wilhelmsson joins a growing list of notable international players to sign with the Galaxy in recent years, including Irish striker Robbie Keane, and Brazilians Juninho, Marcelo Sarvas and David Junior Lopes. And of course there’s David Beckham.

Wilhelmsson said that trend has increased the profile of the league abroad based on conversations he’s had with friends and former teammates in Europe.

“They even follow the league over there now, especially the Galaxy.”

He credits not just those players, but the whole team with helping him adjust to the rough-and-tumble style necessary for success in MLS.

“I’m still in the process of adapting,” said Wilhelmsson, who has played five games with the Galaxy. “I have to learn my team here as well, how we play. It’s a physical league.”

Fitness has been a concern for Wilhelmsson since joining the Galaxy for its stretch run. Because MLS operates on a different schedule than most leagues around the world, the Galaxy’s season was just getting started on May 23 when Wilhelmsson played his last game for Al-Hilal.

In the four months before he signed with the Galaxy, Wilhelmsson played only six games – all internationals for his native Sweden. He said it was difficult to jump in and perform at his best.

“I didn’t have a preseason, so I’m just trying to reach where the guys are physically,” he said. “I just try to catch up and get my legs going.”

His left leg has taken a little more time. Wilhelmsson sprained his ankle at the end of September, which caused him to miss one game.

Since scoring in his Galaxy debut against Colorado on Sept. 14, Wilhelmsson hasn’t tallied a goal or an assist in four matches. Fortunately for the Galaxy and their fans, Wilhelmsson said he’s finally 100% healthy and ready to show what he’s capable of.

“I’m an offensive player and I want to just create as much [scoring] situations as possible,” he said. “I try to come in the right positions. I got my chances, it’s just that I have to … focus on the finishing.”

Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena said he’s pleased with Wilhelmsson’s progress, adding he’s been a good addition to the team.

“He’s been here about two months now,” Arena said. “It’s taken some time to get his fitness to come around, but he’s … a really experienced, intelligent player. He gives us another dimension to our team that we were lacking.”

Beckham agreed with his coach about what Wilhelmsson brings to the attack.

“He’s played the game in many different countries and he’s experienced,” Beckham said. “When you’ve got a player that has that soccer mind he’s easy to play with.”

Keane, who earned the Galaxy’s Golden Boot award as leading goal scorer, said Wilhelmsson compliments his style of play up front.

“He’s a clever player,” Keane said. “His runs off the ball are quite good for someone like me who drops off deep … to try and play people in.”

After his team’s 1-0 win over Seattle in its final regular-season game Sunday, Wilhelmsson said the chemistry with his teammates is progressing – slowly but surely.

“With time it will come,” he said. “So far we’ve had good results, and I’m happy that we keep on going in the right direction.”

That direction puts them on a collision course with Vancouver on Thursday in a do-or-die knockout game at the Home Depot Center.

If the Galaxy loses, all Wilhelmsson’s hard work would be for naught. He said the team knows what’s at stake and there’s no danger of looking past the Whitecaps toward a potential first-round matchup with top-seeded San Jose.

“It’s boring, but it’s one game at a time,” he said. “We have Vancouver -- that’s the next target … and we have to give the maximum otherwise there will be no discussion and no talk about the other game.”