[author' note: this was written on Monday, and with the busy schedule around here I didn't have a chance to run it until now. The context of this has changed a bit after last night, but not too much to require massive editing. I post it as originally written]
Saturday evening, as the sun sank lower towards the horizon and the elation of a comprehensive 6-2 win begun to turn to contemplation, a strange thought crossed my mind.
"I wonder how Fredy Montero feels right know?"
it wasn't as though Montero was a passenger in Saturday's match. He was active enough, and figured onto the scoresheet even though he recorded none of the 6 goals. But this is, after all, the player who is paid very well (by MLS standards) to be the feature man in the Sounder attack - at least in a nominal sense - and one just has to wonder about these things occasionally - at least I do. It is not as though I am figuring Montero ought to be upset, in fact, I would be upset if he were. It has more to do with a sense of self-evaluation, a trait that all good athletes really ought to have. Not that it matters to the media or the fans - these thoughts are rarely shared in a frank manner, and when they are we tend to judge them harshly against the context of wins and losses. This is the self-critical voice wherein an individual asks himself "am I really carrying my weight around here?"
Watching highlights I noted a couple of clear moments where he decided to shoot rather than make what should have been an easy and more threatening pass, almost as if he felt at least a modicum of pressure to join in on the goal-scoring himself; but it is also entirely possible to be reading too much into all this.
The 6 goals the Sounders scored Saturday have put them at the top of MLS in goals scored this season, with 42. This is actually a little odd considering that about 2 weeks ago the Sounders were virtually thrust into crisis, in the minds of some, by not being able to sign a high-priced forward during the transfer window. Never mind that it very well be fullback that proves to be this team's Achilles heel this year (if they have one), what we needed was a clinical finisher, a forward who would actually score goals and finish these myriad chances seemingly going to waste, and in the lack of such a person our season was ultimately doomed and success merely an illusion.
As it turns out, lack of goal-scoring is hardly a concern for this team (although expect that perception to change the next time the team goes scoreless in a match). This seems bafflingly counterintuitive, given the apparent need for an expensive mid-season forward reinforcement, and it all begs the question, do you really need forwards to score goals?
Ask followers of the USMNT and many of them will wring their hands about the lack of USA soccer's ability to cultivate elite forwards. The general perception is that we won't truly excel at the international level until we can begin to create Wayne Rooney level forwards. This has all led to a what I like to refer to as the messianic forward complex - something the English have perfected. Never mind that Clint Dempsey continues to thrive as probably one of the best players in the Premiership, and that Stuart Holden - before being waylaid by the thugishness of Nigel de Jong in a friendly - was one of the higher-rated midfielders in England through the first part of the 2010-11 season. If one goes back and actually watches the 2010 World Cup effort, one will see that Jozy Altidore - when freed from the dead weight of Robbie Findley as his strike partner - actually did a great job of wining and holding the ball and fitting into the framework of s system that called upon Landon Donovan and Dempsey to really be the attacking force. The fact Altidore didn't score is what many will focus on (although he did finish with as many goals in South Africa as Rooney, it must be said). Looking a little further into the last World Cup, the Golden Boot winner played as a right wing in Germany's 4-2-3-1, the Netherlands finished runner-up with Robin van Persie scoring 1 goal in the tournament, and Golden Ball winner Diego Forlan was used primarily as an enganche.
One need only look down the West Coast to L.A., who were cruising to the Supporter's Shield having gotten very little throughout the season so far from their forwards (although the signing of Robbie Keane has apparently made them unbeatable, according to some). Meanwhile, NYRB, with the best forward in the League and Golden Boot favorite Thierry Henry, are an absolute mess. The top four in the MLS goal standings right now include Eric Hassli - who plays for the League's worst team - and Brek Shea and Landon Donovan, who are both listed as outside mids/wingers.
But getting back to Montero and the Sounders. His all-competitions numbers of 7 goals and 8 assists are far from horrible; [edit: yes, after Tuesday he now has 8 goals in all competitions] although his League numbers of just 6 goals in 23 matches played do seem a bit thin (although his 6 helpers alleviate that). It is quite fair to say he has not been as productive as it is reasonable to expect he should be. But it is also hard to say that it even matters, and it is hard to say that forwards scoring in the first place matters.
If we have seen one thing over the last season and a half it is the importance of outside midfielders/wingers to modern attacking football, and how that applies to our home team. I have talked about this in the past many times (too numerous to link here, quite frankly) but in the type of systems the Sounders have run under Sigi Schmid for most of their matches the outside mids are not only free to be attack-minded players, they are EXPECTED to be attack minded players. This, in turn, puts pressure on defensive mids and fullbacks, where the true weak link in the team may really be (in terms of depth if not quality of starters).
It simply does not matter who scores the goals, so long as they are being scored. The incredible 10-1-2 stretch the team enjoyed in the second half of '10 was really defined by Steve Zakuani and Sanna Nyassi, far more than Montero and Blaise Nkufo.
So if forwards don't need to score, what do they need to do? This is the real issue, as it speaks to the one of the core values of Sigi's "big man/small man" forward pairing template he has had a hard time doing away with. Roger Levesque worked as the top man simply because we was willing to expend effort pressuring defenders, even though his abilities in possession we quite limited. Montero is still proving able to draw the attention of defenders and sort of soak up defensive pressure to create space for his teammates. In other words, the outcomes for the forwards may not be quantifiable in the convenient way we all want them to be, in a simple tabulation under a column labeled "G" on the stat sheets. We may have to think about this a little bit, and we may have to appreciate the holistic nature of the game itself and this team in particular. But at the same time, so do our opponents, and that is a lot harder then drawing a figurative "X" on a player and saying "stop him!"