Fredy Montero made quite a name for himself in Colombia, but upon his arrival in Seattle prior to the 2009 season he was largely an unknown quantity. Montero twice led the Copa Mustang in goals scored and is a graduate of the youth system of storied Colombian side Deportivo Cali, the club that produced current Wigan Athletic striker Hugo Rodallega and legendary playmaker Carlos Valderrama. Fredy made his presence felt right away, scoring twice in the Sounders' first ever MLS game against the New York Red Bulls, and finished the 2009 season as the team's leading scorer with 12 goals. It was a tremendous arrival on the MLS scene for the then 21-year-old striker.
Last season didn't start off so well. Montero was unable to find his scoring touch early on and eventually found himself benched with Sigi Schmid being quite clear that his reasons for doing so were down to a perceived lack of effort. Schmid wasn't the only person that wasn't particularly enamored with Montero's performance, with many Sounders fans singling him out as one of the main reasons for the team's struggles early in the year. Montero was clearly a better player after the benching than before it, and much was made of the impact it had on his play.
I don't doubt that it had some effect, but I also think its impact was likely overblown. A lot of things changed over the course of last season; Freddie Ljunberg went away, Blaise Nkufo and Alvaro Fernandez joined the club and most importantly Fredy Montero's role on the team changed rather drastically. Graham McAree, currently of SB Nation Soccer, wrote this post about Fredy's transition to trequartista back in late August of last season. Whereas before Montero had before been an out-and-out striker, his move to a more withdrawn, creative position was a revelation. The change wasn't solely responsible for the Sounders' run of excellent form that drove them to a US Open Cup win and playoff berth, but it was a fairly large element of a more sweeping tactical change.
When a team is performing well, people stop looking for things to criticize. Where Montero had previously been chastised for a lack of hustle he was instead praised for his patience in the build up. Instead of being criticized for wasting chances with long range efforts that went just wide or high, he was lauded for his self-assurance when they began to find the target. Was Montero more effective in the latter part of the season than he was in the first? Most certainly. But it wasn't because he drastically altered his game; it was because the rest of the team was able to integrate him more effectively into theirs.
While the Sounders aren't off to as disappointing a start this season as they were last, things have still been frustrating. That's especially true where the attack is concerned, and predictably it has been Fredy Montero that has shouldered much of the blame. It's unfortunately fairly common to see this type of thing; people like to focus their ire, and what better target than a designated player who has scored just two goals and has something of a reputation for laziness? Never mind the fact that he missed several games with a broken wrist and is still wearing a cast during games, or that the team lost Blaise Nkufo hours before the first game of the season, Steve Zakuani a few weeks later and O'Brian White just days after that. Forget about the nagging injuries that have plagued Brad Evans, Mauro Rosales, Erik Friberg and Alvaro Fernandez all year long. Ignore the fact that Montero is at his most dangerous when he's allowed to exploit space, space that has not been there hardly at all this season due to the tactical changes necessary to compensate for all of the attrition the Sounders have had to endure. It's far more convenient to focus on Fredy's shortcomings.
After Montero's last start, in Seattle's 0-1 home loss to FC Dallas, Sigi Schmid said the following:
He needs to score. End of story. That’s what he’s paid to do.
I'm sure that Fredy Montero would agree that he needs to score, but it's certainly not an "end of story" situation. He's paid to do a whole lot more than that. And while I would like to believe that Schmid said what he did in the heat of the moment after a frustrating home loss, the fact that Montero has not started the past two games and has been training with the reserves as of late leads me to believe that he stands by what he says.
That's incredibly disheartening. Fredy Montero is a special player and while his ability to score goals is tied to his value, it's not the entirety of his value. There aren't very many players in MLS with the combination of guile, cleverness, finishing ability and the on-ball skill of Montero and though he's in a scoring drought at the moment, the other parts of his game are still there. Montero quite simply wasn't that bad against FC Dallas. While it certainly wasn't his best ever game, it was far from his worst. He didn't put the ball in the net, but he created several fantastic chances for teammates, won some scrappy duels in the midfield and was far from the problem with Seattle's performance on the night. And yet, he's started the past two games as a substitute.
The Sounders are far, far better with Fredy than they are without him. Sigi Schmid is a smart man, and he has to realize this. So if it's not tactical, what is it? Schmid is known as something of a man manager and he and Fredy seem to have a strong relationship, so to a certain extent I am willing to defer to him. I don't have the same interactions with Montero that Sigi does, nor am I privy to his coaching instructions. But this most recent benching has the feel of being punitive, and for the life of me I can't figure out what it is Fredy is being punished for. This team has a lot of problems at the moment. Fredy Montero isn't one of them. On his best days there's not another player in MLS that's more valuable than he is, and on his worst days he's still better than the majority of the strikers in the league.
Sports fans have a tendency to focus on the negative with players that they know are valuable but don't do things the way they'd like them done. Lots of people think Ichiro would be a whole lot better if he'd take more pitches or dive for more balls. Seahawks fans criticized Shaun Alexander for years for dancing behind the line and lacking elite speed. Fredy Montero needs to 'hustle' more, to spend less time in the midfield and more time going after goals. For whatever reason, we can't be happy with what we have; we have to constantly ask why it can't be better. That's not to say that Montero doesn't have room for improvement, because clearly that's not the case. But he doesn't need to change the way he plays. He's never going to run down balls and crash the goal like Mike Fucito, and he shouldn't. He wouldn't be nearly as effective a player if he tried. He's wasted as a center forward, where he spends a great deal more time trying to win aerial battles and getting beat up by far bigger center backs in the process. It's a misuse of his skillset, just like asking Fucito or Jaqua to play Montero's role would be waste of theirs.
The Sounders have something special in Fredy Montero, something most any club in MLS would be thrilled to have. He shouldn't be immune from criticism, but he also shouldn't be made the scapegoat nearly as often as he is. Goalscorers have dry spells. Montero himself has shown that he's no exception to that rule. But to single him out when he does so much right and there are so many other things wrong is baffling. For those that fetishize speed and mindless hustle, Montero will never be a favorite. He doesn't have the greatest engine in the world, and sometimes the casual nature with which he carries himself on the pitch can come across as aloof. But that doesn't make him lazy and it doesn't mean he doesn't care. It just makes him different. And if his being different is part of what makes him the quality of player that he is, that's something we should all be able to live with.