Can Fredy Montero be the difference-maker the Whitecaps need?

Colombian forward Fredy Montero (Paulo Duarte/AP)

VANCOUVER—After starting the pre-season with a work-in-progress roster, the Vancouver Whitecaps finally made a big splash.

On Wednesday, Vancouver announced the acquisition of Colombian striker Fredy Montero on a one-year loan from Chinese Super League club Tianjin Teda. Montero’s arrival seems to answer a nagging question: Just whom will the Whitecaps rely on to score?

Montero is well-known to fans of Major League Soccer for his four-season stint with the Seattle Sounders. He is Seattle’s all-time leading scorer, having tallied 60 goals and 42 assists across all competitions between 2009 and 2012. The 29-year-old was named MLS Newcomer of the Year in 2009, and is a three-time MLS all-star.

But just what does Montero’s arrival mean for a Vancouver side that so thoroughly disappointed in 2016? Can the Whitecaps’ newest designated player be the difference-maker they need?

First, the obvious: Montero is a fantastic talent. He’s exciting to watch, so his presence should make for riveting viewing, at the very least.

Whether or not this deal ends up a success mostly depends on two things: how well he fits in with coach Carl Robinson's style of play, and whether his performance is enough to justify what the team gave up.

Because Montero was transferred out of MLS to Portuguese side Sporting CP in 2014—where he scored 37 goals and 12 assists over 94 appearances, starring in UEFA Champions League and Europa League matches—he was subject to the MLS Allocation Ranking Order upon his return to the league. In order to acquire him, the Whitecaps traded with Minnesota United FC to obtain the top spot in the order. Vancouver agreed to send $100,000 in General Allocation Money to Minnesota in 2018, as well as $125,000 in Targeted Allocation Money in 2018. The ’Caps also gave up an international roster spot for 2017.

As part of the Whitecaps’ deal with Tianjin Teda, they'll retain Montero’s MLS rights, but there's no purchase option in place, which means that should the Colombian have a blazing season in 2017, the price to buy him will go through the roof.

But while bringing in Montero was costly, the deal could prove a turning point for a team that struggled amidst big expectations last year. In 2015, Vancouver hosted its first ever MLS home playoff match, and in 2016, many expected the team to contend for MLS Cup. Instead, last season, the Whitecaps finished eighth in the Western Conference. They led the league in shots on goal with 175, yet they were in the bottom half in goals scored (with 45), which is a decent indicator that they lacked that finishing touch.

Consider that the Whitecaps' most prolific scorer in 2016 was Pedro Morales, who managed nine goals (six of them penalties) across 27 appearances and is no longer with the team, and it's easy to see why fans were concerned about the lack of an elite striker. Erik Hurtado, while he put in some good performances toward the end of last season especially, has yet to prove that he's the sort of striker a team can rely on to consistently score in this league.

Of course, scoring wasn't the only problem last year. Vancouver struggled with defensive issues, and right fullback in particular was a problem area. The team has addressed those issues by bringing on veteran defender Sheanon Williams from the Houston Dynamo. Behind him is newcomer Jake Nerwinski, whom the Whitecaps took with the seventh pick in this year's MLS SuperDraft (he signed his MLS deal last week).

But goal scoring remained a concern, and Montero should provide a creative spark. As Robinson said in a press release announcing the signing, the five-foot-nine forward "has proven throughout his career to be an elite attacking player and consistent goalscorer, and he is already familiar with the league and environment.”

That wealth of experience—and his proven success scoring in top leagues—suggests that Montero could well prove instrumental in reversing the Whitecaps’ fortunes after last year. It helps that he's comfortable playing not just in MLS but on the west coast, which means he’ll be prepared for the gruelling travel that clubs like Vancouver face.

There are questions, though, which won't be answered until Montero takes the field. How will he fare if Robinson sticks with his beloved 4-2-3-1 formation? Can he adapt to a league that has undergone significant changes since he left?

It will be interesting to watch what Montero can do if partnered with Yordy Reyna, a speedy winger/forward acquired by the 'Caps during the off-season.

As much as Montero's signing is a boon to Whitecaps fans, the news will likely sting for Sounders supporters who remember Montero's dazzling performances for Seattle. But that backstory will only make Cascadia Cup matches more intriguing this year.

Just as intriguing is the question of what comes next: With Montero on the books, is Robinson is done, or might there be another signing still to come?

Whatever happens, there's no question that Montero's arrival makes the Vancouver Whitecaps a team to watch in 2017.

Sportsnet's Soccer Central podcast (featuring James Sharman, Thomas Dobby, Brendan Dunlop, and John Molinaro) takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game and offers timely and thoughtful analysis on the sport's biggest issues.