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Sunday, April 1, 2012
Updated: April 2, 10:01 AM ET
Time for Montero to move?

By Kevin McCauley
Special to ESPN.com

In the Seattle Sounders' first competitive game of the season, a 2-1 CONCACAF Champions League home win over Santos Laguna, Fredy Montero was stunning, the clear man of the match. Though the MLS side faced a Mexican powerhouse's first-choice XI that was in midseason form, Montero -- in his first competitive match of 2012 -- seemed entirely at ease with the mismatch.

Fredy Montero
Coming into MLS in 2009, Fredy Montero showed a preternatural skill on the ball yet lacked the physicality to round out his game. In 2012, he's very much the complete package.

Looking like he belongs on a different pitch than many of his peers isn't a new sensation for Montero, but this particular performance was more jarring than previous stellar displays. No one is supposed to be as sharp as he was in his first competitive game of the season.

Furthermore, no MLS player is supposed to outplay experienced Mexican internationals such as Juan Rodriguez and Aaron Galindo and make it look as effortless.

It seemed obvious at the end of last year that Montero's days with the Seattle Sounders were numbered, but following the first weeks of the new season, the reality is clear: He's just too good for this. The Seattle Sounders and MLS helped him reach this level, but it's one that Montero has since transcended.

In the Colombian Categoria Primera A's 2008 Clausura, a then 21-year-old Montero scored 16 goals for Deportivo Cali to finish as the tournament's top scorer. Before that, in 2007, he was the country's top scorer with 13 goals while on loan to Atletico Huila, and earned his national team debut for Colombia in 2007 as a result of those strong performances.

While the Colombian Primera is not the highest level of competition in the Americas, players who perform well there are usually offered a chance to step up, and though transfers to Mexico and Argentina tend to be more common options for Colombian players than MLS, Montero made his move.

First came the culture shock. When Montero arrived in Seattle, he seemed to be stunned by the styles of play and officiating when he came into the league. Even though his skill made him an effective player immediately, it seemed to take him until well into his second season to fully acclimate to the physical play and how much contact officials are willing to overlook.

MLS is an extremely tough league; hard challenges that might be considered a yellow card offense by referees in South America or continental Europe may go unnoticed by MLS officials. As a result, Fredy Montero has been brutalized at times in his three-plus seasons -- but that's a good thing. After all, the Seattle forward didn't need to develop his skill or learn how to finish; he simply needed to toughen up, and MLS obliged.

Adrian Hanauer
Seattle Sounders GM Adrian Hanauer will surely receive inquiries about his star forward in 2012, as Fulham, Ajax and Real Betis have all been linked with Montero in recent years.

In 2011, for example, the public saw a more determined side of Montero. The stats don't show it -- goals (12) and assists (9) were either up or in line with his first two years in the league -- but the Colombian was a more complete player, emulating Wayne Rooney in continually dropping deep to find the ball, win possession and cue Seattle's attacks from midfield.

Intriguingly, Seattle conceded goals at a lower rate in 2011 than they did in 2010, despite playing a more attacking style of football and with goalkeeper Kasey Keller, at times, looking very much his age (41 at the time of retirement). The sturdier defense had a lot to do with Jhon Kennedy Hurtado's lack of injuries and Osvaldo Alonso's form, but it had just as much to do with the fact that Montero did more to help Seattle win the ball and keep it than he had in his previous two seasons. Unlike the Montero that would go down easily at the slightest contact in his inaugural MLS season, the Montero of 2011 could stay on his feet more often and avoid losing the ball under pressure.

Furthermore, Montero's durability improved dramatically; because of Seattle's lack of depth and desire to compete in both the U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League along with the MLS season, Montero had to play more than ever before. Yet, his production never waned, netting 18 in 42 appearances in all competitions.

So what is the endgame for Montero and MLS?

While Seattle has the biggest fan support in the league, this league always felt like a stepping stone for Montero. Three years ago, the striker wasn't good enough or sufficiently prepared for European soccer; Today, there's absolutely no doubt that he's ready. Adrian Hanauer would be foolish to let him go for nothing, but for all Montero's talents, the Sounders GM shouldn't hang up the phone on anyone who asks about his star either. Having failed to find Montero a viable long-term strike partner for three (and now running into four) seasons -- Blaise Nkufo and O'Brian White were the closest, though Nkufo lasted one season before retiring and White was injury prone -- the Colombian is almost owed that courtesy.

After all, Montero took a chance on Seattle when most players of his caliber had never heard of the Sounders, and admitting as much back in 2009: "In Colombia, there's little [known] about the league & I did know that Juan Pablo Ángel and Juan Toja were here and that it had gone well for them."

When asked about Montero's move to MLS after just one game for his new club, BBC columnist Tim Vickery felt it was the wrong choice -- and most people probably agreed.

But this difference of opinion isn't what matters for Montero, nor that Montero will likely move on from the Seattle Sounders soon enough. Rather, it's that MLS made him the player that he is today, and until his future is decided -- Fulham, Ajax and Real Betis have all reportedly expressed interest in recent transfer windows -- MLS fans should enjoy watching Montero stateside while they still can.

Kevin McCauley is a contributor to SB Nation Soccer and the manager of Tottenham Hotspur blog Cartilage Free Captain. You can follow him on twitter at @KevinMcCauley.