Blaise Nkufo's exit opens door for Fredy Montero to lead Sounders FC
Young Seattle striker must prove he can lead as well as score
Seattle Times staff columnist
Sounders FC lost again to nemesis L.A. Galaxy 1-0 in Tuesday's opening night, which really isn't MLS news anymore, considering Los Angeles now has won the last five times the teams have played in league competition.
The real news of the day was made earlier when, even before the first kick, the Sounders announced they had agreed to end their association with veteran striker Blaise Nkufo, effectively putting the team's focus on talented young forward Fredy Montero.
It was news, but it shouldn't have been surprising. Nkufo came into camp out of shape and grumpy and didn't train particularly hard. It was as if he believed his time in Seattle merely was a soccer holiday, a prize earned from his years of hard work in the Swiss leagues.
He came to Seattle last summer after the World Cup with a little bit of that star's mentality. He wasn't a leader, and he wasn't a scorer.
At 35, he didn't seem prepared for the physical style played in the MLS And it was no secret that Nkufo and Montero were incompatible on the pitch.
Nkufo, like the Sounders' other highly-decorated European player, former midfielder Freddy Ljungberg, often expressed his displeasure with Montero's erratic work rate, raising his arms in the air in frustration when Montero didn't make a run when it appeared there was a run to be made.
But because of his age and his attitude, Nkufo won't be a great loss. The Sounders already had too many target men, and Tuesday's starter, O'Brian White, and Nate Jaqua are hard workers whose best years are in front of them.
In his first game with the Sounders, White was busy all night. He had the Sounders' two best scoring chances, both set up by seeing-eye passes from Steve Zakuani.
The most dangerous chance came in the 72nd minute, when Zakuani slid a pass to White that had Galaxy keeper Josh Saunders out of position, but White pulled the shot just wide.
In the first half, White misplayed a sharp pass from Zakuani, who dribbled along the touch line before finding White about 8 yards from the goal.
White could have/should have scored twice, but in his 79 minutes he played with more energy than Nkufo usually did and, in the long run, looks like a good complement alongside Montero.
"I thought he did well," Zakuani said of White. "He kept the ball. Obviously I think he would be the first to say he had some good chances, but he stayed strong up there. He gave us an outlet. He was moving around, moving around.
"As long as he was moving he was always a threat. We have to get used to him, and he has to get used to us. I think a couple of times we might have misread each other. But he'll get that first goal and then keep moving."
If there is a lesson to be learned for the Sounders from the failed Nkufo experiment, it might be that they should reconsider the idea of signing another thirty-something former European star.
Ljungberg gave the team instant credibility when he came to Seattle from West Ham, and as well as he played in the inaugural season, his melodramatic signs of displeasure with the performances of some of his younger teammates got old.
All of this brings us to Montero, the Sounders' young, gifted goal-scorer. At 23, he has been given the keys to this season. He is the Sounders' designated player, making about $800,000 this season.
The Sounders are staking their season on the belief that Montero has matured enough to be the same kind of hardworking consistent star for them that, say, Wayne Rooney is for Manchester United or Samuel Eto'o is for Inter.
If the Sounders are to take the next step, not only get into the playoffs but win a round and possibly get to the MLS Cup, Montero has to be great and he has to lead. This is his team to carry.
It won't be enough to give them his full 90. He needs to give them his full 24/7. His work rate has to be more consistent, not only in games but in training.
Montero has scored 22 goals in 57 league games. At times he has been unbelievably thrilling to watch. At other times his play has been maddeningly inconsistent.
He should be honored by the designation, but he also has to realize there are awesome responsibilities that come with it. He shouldn't take his position as the DP as a sign he's arrived.
He should play this season as if he's looking ahead to his first EPL or La Liga contract.
"I always dedicate myself on the field," Montero said through an interpreter. "It's not a responsibility I carry alone. But obviously it is a responsibility, and I'll do my best. It's part of the game."
But this season, for the Sounders, Montero will be an even bigger part of the game and the season.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176
About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
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