Fredy Montero's revival in MLS mirrors Vancouver's rebirth as a contender
If it still seems somewhat incongruous to see Fredy Montero in a Vancouver Whitecaps jersey, perhaps Seattle Sounders fans are a little bit more inclined to move on from their fond memories of the man after the events of Friday night.
Before the Cascadia Cup clash between the Whitecaps and the Sounders, one Seattle fan had expressed a forlorn hope on Twitter that Montero would score the winner for Seattle; one more goal, albeit an own goal, for the team whose MLS foundational myth he is so intertwined with.
Sadly for Seattle, the idea of Montero as a sleeper agent had no basis in reality. Montero is a goal scorer, and he did what he was brought to Vancouver to do against his former club: not only score, but score a brace that included the game winner.
It won't be much consolation for Seattle that the Montero of Friday looked to be something of a different animal than the Montero who routinely achieved the spectacular in his Sounders days, which came to an end in 2012 with a series of loans that culminated in a permanent deal at Sporting in Lisbon in 2014.
A quick sketch of those Seattle years would probably include a montage of long-range shots and some dejected walking off the field at the final whistles of serial playoff losses. But already in his brief time at Vancouver, Montero looks to be more of a sober player ready to finish moves in the box rather than try one-off acts of speculative genius outside it. And on Friday, at least, he discovered the sense of occasion that had eluded him in four years of playoff frustration.
Montero's goals against the Sounders were both headers, and both based on quick reactions in the box: finding a yard of space between defenders to power in the opening goal, then dropping to another pocket at the back post to redirect a point-blank effort back across the goalkeeper for the winner. Just like his first ever goal for the Whitecaps -- a shot through traffic in the box during a CONCACAF Champions League game against the New York Red Bulls -- his contributions on Friday were less those of the mercurial final-third improviser for which he was celebrated in Seattle and more those of a finisher working the angles and percentages in his team's favor.
Even Montero's sensible haircut stood in contrast to the free-flowing locks of the Seattle era. Still, he was no anonymous footnote on Friday night; if you want one of those, you might look no further than Seattle's Jordan Morris, who was effectively muzzled throughout the game by Vancouver's defense. No, Montero was the story. And having placed himself front and center in this Vancouver performance, he certainly invited speculation on what this team might now become as it builds around him in 2017.
Perhaps it is appropriate that it's not immediately apparent. Just as Montero seems to be doing his best to complicate the caricature of himself as a dubious luxury, Vancouver is moving beyond its own caricature as a somewhat refined kick-and-rush team.
That impression of the Whitecaps as a kind of ultimate college team hardened by the sight of the speedy likes of Darren Mattocks and Kekuta Manneh scampering behind defenses, trying to complete rapid and direct counters. And if that account sold short a perennially solid defense -- and some occasional playmaking genius from the likes of Pedro Morales -- most neutrals could live with it as a loose summation of what the Whitecaps were about.
Not that the neutrals have been watching that carefully of late. On paper, 2016 looked like a year when the Whitecaps might come good, but key injuries seemed to rob them of momentum in the league, and the only highlight was a very solid Champions League group stage that ultimately led them to elimination in the semifinals of the competition last week. But by the time of the playoffs, the Whitecaps were also-rans, forced to watch a Cascadian rival lift the trophy for the second year in a row.
And yet there are plenty of positive holdovers from that 2016 team, now reinforced with Montero and looking to find some other approaches than the one opposition teams were becoming wise to.
Some aspects remain constant, though improved by another season of familiarity. For one, the key triangle of David Ousted in goal and Kendall Waston and Tim Parker anchoring the center of defense should ensure that the Whitecaps have a solid defensive platform to build on against any side in the league.
But it's farther up the field that Montero's contributions become intriguing. The three players behind him in the 4-2-3-1 -- Cristian Techera, Christian Bolanos and Alphonso Davies -- are not necessarily looking to feed Montero as quickly as possible in the hope he'll summon up magic but to incorporate him in build-up play.
Bolanos, operating in a nominal No. 10 role but occasionally playing as more of a second striker, is a key element of this. Of course, there's also the X factor of the teenager Davies, who already has been attracting rave reviews for performances beyond his years, but who may appreciate the shift in focus to Montero as he continues to find his feet in the professional game.
It's a potentially intriguing attack, even if it's most potent formation is still very much in flux. But it's clear that it will stand or fall with Montero as the key. Sorry Seattle, Montero's a Vancouver man now.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.