As the MLS playoffs loom increasingly closer it was imperative to establish momentum during this crucial stage.
Saturday night two teams hovering at the five hundred mark sought to move a leg up toward playoff competition as the Chicago Fire with recent acquisition Freddie Ljungberg visited Seattle to face the Sounders before an Xbox pitch Qwest Field throng of 36,386.
It was only befitting that Colombia Comet Fredy Montero, the team leader in goals and assists, surge forward to take control when the game was on the line and make the difference. Montero scored his second of two goals on the night during stoppage time to break a 1-1 regulation time deadlock and commandeer a nail-biting 2-1 triumph that set off an instant celebration on the Sounders bench as well as throughout the stadium.
Earlier in the season Montero set a high bench mark for himself for 2010 after an impressive All-Star beginning last year. “Since the MLS season is longer than that in Colombia where I set my goal of 15 goals,” he explained, “I set a goal of 20 goals here.”
Montero was asked if he had a goal for number of assists this season. “Yes, I have a goal of 10 assists,” he replied.
The irony is the current equal distribution of Montero’s work product. With his two scores Saturday night Montero’s production is identical with 10 goals and the same number of assists.
When asked to comment on this result of identical goals and assists from Seattle’s star striker, Coach Sigi Schmid had an answer:
"He's a player that drops off the front line a little bit, that's where he feels most comfortable. So he's a player who also is a good passer of the ball. An old coach told me a long time ago that dribblers don't make it in this game and what he meant to say by that is when you look at the great dribblers in the game whether it's a George Best or a (Diego) Maradona or a (Lionel) Messi, they are also very good passers of the ball. I think Fredy Montero has that ability and so if you are a good passer of the ball and then you can dribble as well and have something extra that is spicing on the cake kind of thing, or the icing, something like that. I get all those things confused - the icing, something like that."
Schmid’s conclusion drew laughter from the media corps. The humor added extra spice but the point was clear. Montero is the kind of polished player who passing skills rival those of his kicking prowess. As a result he establishes high numbers in both scoring and assists.
The evening got off to a frustrating beginning for the home squad. In the 28th minute a John Thorrington penalty kick put the Windy City club on top. With Ljungberg, recently traded from Seattle to Chicago and making his first appearance to his former home city since then, available the question was whether he should take the penalty kick. He had been the team designate for corner kicks for the entire evening.
Ljungberg commented after the match that his teammates implored, “Freddie, you should take the kick” but felt that after all the hype that had been generated over the match that “other players” should constitute the factor and hence his refusal and Thorrington instead delivering the score.
The penalty resulted from defender Jeff Parke being whistled for a handball in the box when Patrick Nyarko's pass struck his arm.
Montero delivered an equalizer in the 36th minute. Tyson Wahl, making his first appearance since April 25, took a pass from Patrick Ianni and served a long ball to the box. The timing was superb as the speedy Montero chased down the ball and blasted a shot inside the near post.
The assist marked Wahl’s first MLS point since entering the league in 2006. For Ianni his effort marked his initial assist of the season.
The climactic final Montero goal came in the second minute of second-half stoppage time. James Riley took a quick throw-in to Nathan Sturgis. He then delivered a left-footed cross to Montero at the far post.
The Colombian delivered a picture perfect header. Montero headed the ball down and past Fire goal keeper Sean Johnson for his 10th goal. This marked Sturgis' first assist this season and Riley's third.
Seattle finished with a 12-9 edge in shots. The teams stood even at 4-4 on goal while the Sounders held a 6-4 on corner kick advantage.
"It is pretty exciting,” Coach Schmid said regarding the late game-winning dynamics. “You do all the hard work and when you win one like that and you score late like you do, it's such an outstanding feeling. That's something that sometimes becomes defining moments for teams in a season. Hopefully this will help us in becoming a defining moment for us."
Many had predicted that this crucial test for both teams would generate high scoring as well as a lot of tough physical play. While a high scoring element never resulted, the play was at a high physical level. The match had an intensity that kept both teams on their physical edge. No red cards resulted but five yellows were handed out.
Steve Kinney and Freddie Ljungberg each secured yellow cards for the visitors for a reckless tackle and reckless foul respectively. Montero and Nate Jaqua were cited for reckless fouls while Blaise Nkufo secured a yellow card for unsporting behavior.
"They are a pretty physical team,” Schmid said regarding Chicago. “C.J. Brown is a pretty physical player. There were a lot of knocks, bumps and bruises. There's a lot of guys that are pretty bruised in there, but that's just part of the game when you play them."
Speaking of bruises, Ljungberg limped noticeably walking into the post-game news conference. We waived it off in the manner of a determined veteran as nothing more than part of the game. “It will be gone in the next day or two,” he said.
As for the yellow card he secured and that which Montero picked up against him, Ljungberg denied that there was any “message” being communicated. The results just constituted tough and determined soccer.
On the subject of returning to Seattle to face his former teammates, Ljungberg delivered an emotional message:
"Of course it's special to come back, you know. I have a special relationship with people in this city and I thought the fans were just amazing. Of course I was booed in the game, and before and after the game they were cheering so I can understand that totally, and it was a nice reception.
“About the game, of course we're devastated, we lost the game due to marking. There were misses , and they scored two goals, which we're extremely upset about in the locker room. But that can't happen, especially when we play so well for 90 minutes and concede in the last second, the 90th and some extra minutes.
“We felt we played well. We kept the ball more than Seattle. They're kind of a more straight forward, long ball system and hoping for the second ball so we kind of felt we could control it if we kept the ball which we did some moments in the second half which we were happy with. That's why it's hard, it's devastating to concede on a long ball and marking we were missing in the box."
As a determined veteran Ljungberg remains focused on finding a way to help his new team make the playoffs. This was evident in his remarks about adjusting to a new playing environment and what the future holds.
"Normally it takes a while but my new team has been absolutely great and they want to play in a certain way and Carlos (de los Cobos, Fire coach) is very adamant about the way he wants to play, and keep the ball on the floor,” Ljungberg explained. “And that's an easy system for me to play, that's how I want to play so I've gotten into it quite well. I've had a great record and played some great football … “(T)oday we conceded three crosses or long balls and so at the moment we need to go back and concentrate on marking and I think we'll get even more wins."
Chicago coach Carlos de los Cobos summarized his overall impression of the match afterward.
"I think our team played good,” the coach concluded. “It was a very good game, Both teams played really good football. It was a shame, with what is happening with the last couple of matches, us losing in the final few minutes. Part of the time of maturing of some players, the young players they are learning. This situation is normal."
Sounders FC now stands at 9-8-5 with 32 points and is fourth in the MLS Western Conference. It has won its last four home matches. The Chicago Fire in losing drop to 6-7-6. It has 24 points. This is its second straight loss. Chicago is fourth in the East.
The Sounders conclude their current home stand on Wednesday with a U.S. Open Cup semifinal at Starfire Sports Stadium in Tukwila, Washington against Chivas USA. First kick is 7:30 p.m. PT.
After that it is back to MLS play as Seattle travels to New England to play the Revolution on September 4 at 4:30 p.m. PT.