After scoring his first of two goals against the Chicago Fire on Saturday night, Seattle Sounders fans spontaneously started a call and response that echoed through Qwest Field, but instead of the usual "Seattle" with the response of "Sounders," the stadium rang out with the name of Seattle's beloved striker.
Yet, before July, much of the Seattle fanbase could barely tolerate Fredy Montero. Although he scored in the opening match of the season, against the Philadelphia Union, the Sounders' slow start to the season meant that people were looking for reasons that the team was losing. They saw Montero walking at times. They watched him losing the ball to defenders. They noticed that his passing seemed ineffective. Sounders fans called him lazy, criticized his work ethic, found him overrated and in general hoped he'd find a new home in Europe.
But then a funny thing happened. Seattle stopped losing. And as Seattle stopped losing, fans stopped looking for a scapegoat and started realizing they had a hero. While winning generally puts any fan in a more favorable mood, in this case, it wasn't just the team winning that helped Montero look better; it was the skills of Montero that helped propel the team into an unbeatable league run.
While Montero's talent and abilities were evident even during the team's run of bad play, he didn't stand out on the pitch. Nothing about his play drew in the fan, catching the eye and drawing the breath. Since July, however, that has changed. Montero is the most exciting player on the pitch.
Why now? Did Montero suddenly tap into a reserve supply of talent that allows him to stand out from the others in MLS? No, the talent has always been there. What's changed is not the player but his position on the field. When Pat Noonan was starting regularly for the Sounders, he played behind Montero, forcing Fredy to move forward into the line of defenders. This is where Montero got squeezed, unable to keep opposing defenders off the ball or find space to pass into safety.
Then Noonan was placed on the injured reserve and Montero found himself playing with Nate Jaqua, who plays further forward than Noonan. With Montero sitting behind Jaqua -- and now playing behind Blaise Nkufo -- he has plenty of space.
Space to exploit. Space to revel in.
The big target forwards hold up the ball and keep off the defenders while Montero has time to take his shots and to set up his passes. We've seen the payoff: goals and assists are flowing from his feet, and the Sounders are undefeated in their last seven MLS matches.
What draws our eye to Fredy Montero, though, is not simply his ability to get a long-range shot on target. What we see with Montero is his skillful trickery, the way he's able to keep the ball from opposing players through feints or fancy footwork. The space now afforded to Montero allows us to watch these impressive maneuvers ... and every once in a while, it gives the Sounders a last-minute equalizer, as it did when the Fire left Montero unmarked by the far post on Saturday, allowing him to head in a Nate Sturgis cross.
Through all the attention, though, Montero manages to stay grounded. When asked about his second goal against the Chicago Fire, he gave all the credit to Sturgis: "It was an excellent ball from [Nathan] Sturgis so all the credit to him. It was a deserved goal and we continue with the season." Montero has more than simply the on-pitch skills; he's learning the off-field game as well.
Fredy Montero is the complete package. Should the Sounders wisely decide to use their third designated player slot to sign the Columbian to a long-term contract, Montero could very well become Seattle's next sporting hero, adored by the city for both his skill and his personality.