24 Under 24: The transformation of Fredy Montero from prospect to UEFA Champions League striker

Colombian forward Fredy Montero finished atop of the "24 Under 24" rankings in 2010. At the time he was a 22-year-old goleador with the Seattle Sounders. Today, he is with Portuguese powerhouse Sporting Clube. 

Six years before he would take MLS by storm, Fredy Montero was already gathering intelligence.

Back in 2003, on bus rides to and from training sessions at Colombian side Deportivo Cali, the 16-year-old Montero made sure to nab the seat next to Oscar Pareja, a Dallas midfielder  in town during the MLS offseason to stay sharp. And Montero took full advantage.

“I remember [Fredy Montero] would ask me some pretty advanced questions about MLS even though he was still young. He was interested to know about the league,” says Pareja, today the head coach at FC Dallas. “So when I later saw that Fredy came to MLS and I saw him play, I knew that he was going to be successful here because his mentality was very different than other foreigners who come to MLS. He was committed to MLS and already had a respect for the league.”

It helped that an ambitious new expansion club was about to burst onto the MLS scene. A year before their 2009 inaugural season, the Seattle Sounders had already set their sights on Colombia for a big signing, honing in on two players in particular: Montero, who was the top scorer in the Liga Postobon for both Atletico Huila (2007) and Deportivo Cali (2008), and forward Adrian Ramos, who today stars for German side Borussia Dortmund and also featured in the 2014 World Cup for Colombia.

Montero stood out right away to Sounders sporting director Chris Henderson. Even though some coaches Henderson respected, including ones from Colombia, tried to tell him that the goal-scoring wouldn’t necessarily translate to MLS, the only question for Henderson became whether the Argentine clubs also chasing Montero would snatch him first.

“Every time we’d go see Fredy [on scouting trips], he'd always score. I remember thinking ‘Ok, you can stop scoring goals now,’” says Henderson, who compared Montero’s playing style to that of D.C. United legend Jaime Moreno. “He just kept scoring these incredible goals and we said, ‘This is a guy who'd do really well in MLS.”

The Sounders eventually got their man — via loan, and later a permanent move — and it represented a major coup at the time. Securing the signature of a two-time scoring champion from a top South American league was not an everyday occurrence in MLS. And Montero was only 21.

Henderson looked like a genius when Montero scored two goals in his debut match on March 19, 2009, against the Red Bulls, and eventually tallying 12 goals in his debut season. The Colombian’s finishing ability, a world-class first touch and his deceptive explosiveness were obvious from the start.

“When we first brought him to preseason, we went down to Ventura and had a scrimmage against San Jose and he scored the best goal I've ever seen him score for us on a diving header off a driven set piece. He found the top corner,” says Henderson. “And Sigi [Schmid, head coach] said to us after the game ‘Thank you for getting Fredy.’ He knew he was something special.

“I think Fredy Montero is vital to what is happening now in Seattle with our supporters and just how soccer has caught on,” Henderson adds. “What happened in that inaugural game against New York, and the start to the season that Fredy had that first month -- that set the tone for our franchise. It wasn't just exciting to have a new expansion team here. We showed we could make the playoffs.”

Montero went on to earn the Newcomer of the Year award in 2009 and a year later finished No. 1 in the inaugural edition of the "24 Under 24," presented by adidas, MLSsoccer.com's annual ranking of the top young players in MLS. They were remarkable achievements for a player who was just settling into a new world, with the added pressure of being the lone breadwinner for his family.

“When I first came here I was surprised about how physical the players are and how high the level and the commitment of the players,” Montero told the New York Times in September 2012, admitting that the weather, the language and culture shock also took plenty of getting used to.

And for all the success in Colombia, he was still far from the finished product on the field. Although Montero’s goal-scoring talent was unquestioned, his new club and league demanded more of him than ever before: work rate, fitness, tactical runs, hold-up play, consistency, fight, and increased commitment to becoming the first line of defense.

“Early on, Fredy felt that once the ball turned over, his job was to sit around until we got the ball back, but there were times he needed to help us get the ball back,” Schmid says. “He became a lot more aware of that and he became aware of his consistency of play. There would be some fabulous movements and flashes he would show, and then other moments he'd be more careless and too relaxed at times.”

Seattle demanded a different mentality. Drifting in and out of matches was not tolerated, and Montero himself recognized the difference compared to the Colombian league: “In Colombia there’s more space, more time and the rhythm is different, while here [in North America] it’s power, speed and dynamic play,” he told Colombian daily El Tiempo in December 2012. “But the truth is that I’ve grown a lot as a player since I arrived at the Sounders. I can say that I’m a more complete player.”

That MLS maturation process, however, had its ups and downs. Amid the goal-scoring binges – the ones that invariably led to three or four inquiries per year from international clubs, according to Henderson – there were the barren stretches that resulted in the occasional benching and questions about whether he could produce in the clutch.

Montero’s MLS playoff production? 10 matches, zero goals. And for four straight postseasons the Sounders would fall short of expectations. So it was no surprise that when a tumultuous 2012 season came to a close, and as the media grew even more critical of Montero, the club proceeded to entertain a loan deal for Montero, who was also eager to make a run at the Colombian national team ahead of the 2014 World Cup.

So in January 2013 he joined then Colombian champs Millionarios, who were also going to get him time in the heavily scouted Copa Libertadores tournament.

“In four years I continued getting offers not only from Colombian teams, but also other international teams,” Montero told media upon his arrival to join Millonarios. “And unfortunately the club [Seattle] always closed itself to a loan deal. This was the opportunity after four years. And I’m thankful to them because they sat down to negotiate. And they were happy.”

But Montero scored just five goals in six months, and Millonarios went down in the group stage of the Copa Lib. He was also criticized for his lack of production from his coach and fans, and it was time to move on again. Montero and the Sounders worked out a new loan deal, this time to Portugal's Sporting Lisbon, where he picked the right time to go on another scoring spree with 13 goals in his first 17 matches.

Given his goal explosion, Sporting didn’t wait to exercise their option to purchase his contract outright. In January of this year, he signed a 5-year deal with a $77 million release clause -- “That’s my dream coming true,” Montero later said.

“He matured a tremendous amount over his years here. He grew up before our eyes,” Schmid says. “I think his focus and work rate has definitely improved and is better. His attention to detail is something he learned here and something we talked about when he was back here. His diet and approach to training. He became professional in his time here which was something he wasn't used to.”

That “maturation and consolidation” that Montero says MLS gave him has helped him get all the way to Maribor, Slovenia, last week. That’s where Seattle’s adoptive son – he still has a house in the city and is married to a Seattleite – took the field for a UEFA Champions League match, a 1-1 draw in the opening match of the group stage. Later, he and Sporting will also face current EPL leaders Chelsea and Bundesliga giants Schalke 04.

But next time he makes a Champions League appearance, he'd probably like to do it from the start of the match instead of only the closing minutes. Montero is mired in a nearly 10-month scoring slump (his last goal came in December 2013), which, of course, has cost him his starting spot.

Sporting and Montero's representative did not respond to repeated interview requests from MLSsoccer.com for this article.

Montero went from accepting an award as Portugal’s third best player in 2013 (for his 13 goals in 17 matches) to missing out entirely on the 2014 World Cup even though Colombia manager Jose Pekerman had taken trips to see him up close.

The same debates had by Sounders supporters and Millonarios fans are now happening among Sporting's faithful. For as much as Montero’s game has advanced, his genius still comes in maddening spurts.

“I am always going to thank the Seattle Sounders because they gave me the foundation that I needed to endure everything in a professional career in Europe,” Montero told the media after visiting Seattle during his first offseason as a Sporting player this past summer. “There is no doubt about that. I always dream of coming back to play with the Sounders.”

No matter what happens to Montero going forward -- whether he finds his goal-scoring touch again or fades away under the weight of unbearable slump -- his story will remain relevant and significant here because of what it reveals about MLS's ability to develop young, foreign players.

“You had Montero and now it’s [Joao] Plata (Real Salt Lake) and [Cubo] Torres (Chivas USA) that haven't been successful in another country but their real development took place here. You’re starting to see it,” Schmid says. “Matias Laba (Vancouver Whitecaps) is another good example. He started in Argentina, comes here and continues to grow. And maybe a [Max] Urruti (Portland Timbers) is another example of that. And there will be more and more of those situations. Montero was definitely the forerunner.”