The 2010 Sounders season will be remembered for many things. Fans will undoubtedly recall the U.S. Open Cup penalty-kick victory over Portland. They'll recall consider that the team was largely left for dead at the midway point of the season, only to be resurrected as a playoff contender. The astute will be quick to point out how the return of Osvaldo Alonso and the emergence of Jeff Parke and Patrick Ianni allowed to team's defensive spine to stiffen and the wins soon followed.
The most memorable moments, though, are those that came at ends of matches -- and there have been plenty.
Blaise Nkufo's 88' goal against the Chicago Fire last Saturday was just the latest example of late-game heroics the Sounders have enjoyed this season. His strike was the fifth time the Sounders have scored the winning goal in the 85' or later. In all, the Sounders have scored eight goals this season at that point in the match.
The Sounders lead MLS in goals at 85' or later and their five game-winning goals is two more than any other team (even if you include goals that tied the match).
"I think the guys have confidence," Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. "When you score goals late, you get confidence that this is something we can do."
Without a question, the Sounders player who has prospered most in these situations is Fredy Montero. The second-year Colombian has scored three goals at 85' or later, with two of them standing up as game-winners. Although three other players (Juan Pablo Angel, Jeff Cunningham and Dwayne De Rosario) have scored as many goals that late in matches, they all had at least one penalty kick to help pad their numbers. None of them can equal Montero's two run-of-play, late-game winners.
That Montero is among the league leaders in this area should come as little surprise.
"I think it’s a testament to him coming here and training as hard as he’s ever trained," Sounders fitness coach Dave Tenney said. "Genetically he’s very gifted. He makes very fast adaptations to training loads and all that.
"Physically, if you see Fredy Montero on the day he got here and now, his fitness is three levels better. To me, what it means is that sky’s the limit for him physically because he’s come and made rapid, rapid gains in just a year and a half. If he keeps working hard, he’ll just get better and better. We have no issues with him, he can play 90 minutes two times a week and recover very well. Genetically that’s how he’s made up."
Tenney, who had spent two years in the same position with the Kansas City Wizards before coming to the Sounders, probably deserves a significant amount of credit for both Montero and the team's late-game fitness.
Throughout the season, he has worked under the assumption that the Sounders would be playing in multiple competitions that would likely mean two games a week. So far, the Sounders have shown little ill effect over their heavy workload.
The win at Chicago, for instance, culminated a 31-day stretch that saw the Sounders play 10 matches in three countries, in three separate tournaments and travel nearly 25,000 miles. Although the Sounders went winless in their three CCL matches, they lost just one other match, advanced to the U.S. Open Cup championship and strengthened their MLS Cup playoff hopes by claiming 10 of the available 15 points. The Sounders won both their MLS matches that followed international road games.
They did all of this while playing a significant number of regulars in every match, with Montero playing in all 10 matches and logging a team-high 827 minutes. Osvaldo Alonso, Nathan Sturgis and Kasey Keller all played in nine of 10 matches. None of the Sounders' regulars played in any fewer than six matches.
"It’s a challenge is what it is," Tenney said. "It’s something that is going to challenge your approach to things. It’s not just this month, it’s the month before ... if we started this month in a fatigued state we would not have been able to handle it.
"So it was about trying to balance what we were doing a month ago and then be able to maintain everyone’s fitness through this period. If you think about it, it wasn’t until the Monterrey game where we started rotating players. It was really the same group twice a week. It was definitely a challenge, but I think we came thorugh it well."
While various players battled nagging injuries throughout that stretch, none of them suffered anything close to the injuries that Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Brad Evans, Pat Noonan, Peter Vagenas or Mike Fucito experienced at much less busy points in the season.
That the run of matches was punctuated with a late game-winning goal, scored by a player who had started the match -- as opposed to a fresh-legged late substitute -- seemed to be a perfect capstone. In fact, it was the third time in 10 matches that the Sounders had scored at 85' or later (Nate Jaqua scored a stoppage time goal against Chivas USA in the USOC semifinal).
"We have the physical preparation and we are able to work hard because we have the energy at the end of the game," Montero said. "It’s the desire that we have to win in order to get to the playoffs."
While that playoff spot is not yet secured, it sure is looking a lot safer now.