Mellberg digs MLS

DEAN McNULTY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:11 AM ET

Aston Villa's centre back Olof Mellberg may have more than just a passing interest in making an impression at BMO Field tonight when his English Premier club plays a friendly against Toronto FC.

Yesterday he expressed interest in playing in North America and it appears that TFC would have the inside track in signing the international soccer star because of his close ties to Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin.

Mellberg, who until last season was captain of Sweden's national soccer team, said he has been friends with Sundin since the two became national icons in their respective sports.

Sun Media has learned that J.P. Barry, Sundin's Los Angeles-based agent, has had discussions with officials of TFC's parent Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment Ltd. about representing Swedish soccer players who might want to jump from European teams to Major League Soccer.

Certainly Mellberg would be the biggest catch of all if such a deal could be worked out.

Yesterday, the 29-year-old Mellberg admitted that MLS in general, and Toronto in particular, were legitimate options for him in the next stage of his soccer career.

"Yes, I have talked about the possibility of playing in North America," he said. "I mean, since (David) Beckham signed (with L.A. Galaxy) lots of players have talked about the MLS as being a place to play."

Mellberg said that closer to home, his former Aston Villa teammate Juan Pablo Angel now is playing in New York with the Red Bulls and that, too, spiked his interest in a possible career change at some point.

"When Juan Pablo left (Aston Villa) for the MLS everybody has (been talking) about this league," he said.

Mellberg's credentials as a soccer star are impeccable and his leadership role on both the Swedish national squad and with Aston Villa bear striking resemblance to Sundin's role both at home and in the NHL with Toronto.

Like Sundin, Mellberg has been a mainstay on the national team since Euro 2000, with 72 caps and appearances in two World Cups.

In 2003 he was named player of the year in Sweden, receiving the prestigious Guldbollen. Last season he became the first player to score a goal in a competitive match at the Emirates Stadium, in a 1-1 draw with Arsenal.

He currently is the longest-serving player at Aston Villa, entering his eighth season this year.

But getting his name on a MLS contract might prove to be a big challenge for TFC because of league rules that all international players must go through a waiver of sorts with the lowest placed teams getting first crack at signing them.

Toronto coach Mo Johnston, however, could circumvent that regulation by making Mellberg a "designated player" -- a term MLS uses to describe star players like Beckham and Angel, whose contracts do not count against the league's salary cap.

"Mellberg would come at a very high cost," a source close to the discussions about Mellberg said yesterday. "TFC would, however, likely be very interested if given the opportunity to bid on a player of Mellberg's stature."


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