As First Kick approaches, MLSsoccer.com is unveiling a three-part series examining the growing influence of Colombian players in Major League Soccer, the reasons behind the influx of players to the league this offseason and which teams are finding Colombia to be a fertile hunting ground for undiscovered talent.
In the first installment, Fidencio Enriquez looks at the path of Seattle Sounders star Fredy Montero, who defied his critics to help pave the way for Colombians to raise their profile in MLS.
The list of Colombian players who have influenced Major League Soccer might be growing seemingly every day, but it reaches back to the dawn of the league in 1996.
That’s when two men – Carlos “El Pibe” Valderrama and Leonel Álvarez – helped usher in the league during its inaugural season, thrived with their respective clubs and initially laid the groundwork for a Colombian revolution that has recently changed the face of the league.
But if you ask any number of Colombian players who have joined MLS in the last six months – there are 27 total in the league now, 14 of which joined during the offseason alone – they probably won’t point to Valderrama or Álvarez as the men who led them here.
Their hero, again and again, is Fredy Montero.
WATCH: Montero explica su exito en la MLS
“Fredy Montero is a young player who knew how to take advantages of the opportunities given to him,” Valderrama tells MLSsoccer.com. “Back in 1996, players such as myself, Leonel Álvarez, [Marco] ‘Diablo’ Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno opened the door for other South American players to come and join the league. But Montero’s case has been very good as well because he went [to MLS] at a very young age and he’s shown that he has the quality to shine in MLS for a very long time.”
What’s the difference between Montero and Valderrama or Álvarez, or even Colombian legend Juan Pablo Ángel? While the other three joined in their 30s after accomplished careers in Europe or with the Colombian national team, Montero joined the Seattle Sounders at just 21 years old, and came straight from the ranks of the Colombian league.
Never had a rising star risked his national team future and possible European suitors for a move to a largely unproven, underestimated and still developing league.
“Fredy is a little bit the guy who sort of led the way,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid tells MLSsoccer.com. “Not a lot of young players take that risk, and I think a lot of the other players should be thankful of Fredy because he’s really opened the door and paved the way for players.”
A Change in Careers
“When I was little, I wanted to be a doctor,” Montero tells MLSsoccer.com in his native Spanish. “Everybody would ask what I wanted to be, and I’d say a doctor. My aunt always told me to be a doctor because it’s what she studied for, and since I was her favorite, she said she’d pay for my studies because she knew the economic status of my parents at the time.”
It’s not that Montero’s family was poor – they were middle-class. His father, Fredy Sr., was a policeman for more than 20 years in Barranquilla and he and his wife Jaynne made sure the family never lacked food or that that the children – Fredy, Luiggi, Jaynne and Fiorella – got Christmas gifts.
But they didn’t have many luxuries, either.
“Obviously, there were some hard times,” Fredy Jr. says. “There were times when I had a game, my parents would send me in a bus and my dad, because he didn’t have money, would walk to the game.”
Montero, as it turned out, was destined for a different path than one that led to the medical profession. He shined for his local youth team, so much so that unbeknownst to him, a scout for Deportivo Cali, one of the biggest clubs in Colombia, had been following his progress for about a year.
“Once the scout felt I was ready, he talked to me and my parents and told us that there was a chance I could be a pro, and that Deportivo Cali would give me a tryout,” he says. “Thank God my parents agreed. After 15 days, I came back with good news: They had accepted me.
“It was the beginning of a dream. I remember thinking that I could have a bright future, play for a big club and for the Colombian national team,” he adds. “Most importantly, I’d be able to help my parents financially and repay them for all the effort they had made to keep us healthy, educated and happy.”
Montero was 13 years old when he joined Deportivo Cali’s youth ranks. Though he made his debut with the senior side in 2005, it was the following year, while on loan to Atlético Huila, that he burst onto the scene by becoming the youngest player ever to win the Colombian league scoring title.
“We went down to Cali and we were able to watch Fredy play several times live, and we were able to meet him face-to-face,” Seattle technical director Chris Henderson recalls to MLSsoccer.com. “Each time we went down to see him play, he’d score – he scored some pretty incredible goals as well. We had that feeling like, ‘Ah! His value’s going to keep rising!’ We wanted to get him.”
Montero was eager to help with the Sounders’ ambition to win titles in MLS, but the Colombian press wasn’t sold on the move to MLS.
“When I chose to come to MLS, that was a very hectic period,” Montero says. “The people wanted to see me play for a big team, a European team. I was criticized for coming to Seattle. The Colombian press speculated that I came for the money. While that was an important factor in my decision because it offered me financial stability, it wasn’t the biggest reason.
“It was hard to take all that criticism. But whose opinion I really valued was that of my family. I made the decision to come to the US with their advice, even if the press believed I would get lost in American soccer because it wasn’t viewed as a competitive league.”
With the backing of his family, Montero pushed all the skepticism aside and signed a loan deal with Seattle.
“Honestly, without really realizing it,” Montero says, “things fell into place and I became, as they say, the tip of the arrow that opened the door for other Colombian players to prove their worth.”
Making an Impression
Montero adjusted quickly to the fast, physical style of play in MLS, and finished the 2009 season with 12 goals, seven assists, an MLS All-Star nod, the league’s Newcomer of the Year award and a US Open Cup.
In 2010, he scored another 10 goals, added 10 assists, was named MLSsoccer.com’s top player under 24 years old, and again won the Open Cup with Seattle.
His performances over those two years with Seattle earned him a permanent transfer and a Designated Player contract with the club for 2011, and he repaid their faith with a 12-goal, nine-assist season, and yet another US Open Cup win despite missing time due to a wrist injury and surgery.
WATCH: Montero finishes against Vancouver
“Fredy is very ambitious – he wants to win every time he steps on the field,” Schmid says with a laugh. “I always say sometimes he likes to cheat, but he cheats to try to win. Some guys cheat because they don’t want to do the work; he cheats because he’s trying to figure out a way to sort of beat the system to win. But it’s not a negative, it’s a positive.
“Players like that I think are special and are so good because they’re always trying to find a weakness in their opponent, something they can exploit, something that they can use to their advantage so that they can be successful at the end of the day, and that’s the way Fredy is.”
Montero’s success has directly contributed to the changing perception of MLS in Colombia, and there’s no more proof needed than the influx of Colombian talent since Montero’s arrival.
Despite all he’s done in MLS, however, the warnings he received from the Colombian press at the time of his move have proven right. He inexplicably hasn’t been called to the national team since August 2009.
“Fredy is an outstanding player and he deserves a look with the Colombian national team again,” Schmid says. “I know it’s been a while since they’ve called him in, I know they’ve had a number of coaching changes as well, but I think Fredy has been very consistent over the years in terms of goal scoring. He hasn’t done it just for one year, he’s done it now for three years. For me, he’s definitely, if not the top Colombian in the league, he’s definitely in the top three.”
Montero’s national team future may depend not just on his success, but on the success of the recent Colombian arrivals as well.
“The perception of MLS in Colombia has changed,” Montero says, “and now is the chance for all of us that are here to show that this league has players with lots of quality, that it’s a competitive league, and that we can contribute to the objective of qualifying for the World Cup.”