If you watch a Union game on TV, you might not naturally be drawn to Jamiro Monteiro. That’s understandable. He isn’t the flashiest player on the team, or the most famous.

But next time — Wednesday night, for example, when the Union play Portland in the semifinals of the MLS tournament — watch him as much as you can.

He isn’t quite a playmaker, though he wears the famed No. 10 jersey and can certainly make plays. He isn’t quite a traditional box-to-box midfielder, though he plays both ways and covers a lot of ground. And he definitely isn’t a defensive midfielder, though he had a reputation in his native Netherlands as being the next N’Golo Kanté — the brilliant ballhawk of France, Chelsea, and previously Leicester City.

So what is Monteiro, exactly?

Union manager Jim Curtin calls him “kind of our wild card.” Alejandro Bedoya, who plays next to Monteiro in central midfield, calls him “a little bit of everything.”

How does Monteiro describe himself?

"I'm a box-to-box player," he said. "I'm a player that can defend, and I'm a player that also can attack. I'm a player that likes to give the end pass."

Jamiro Monteiro kicking the ball during the Union's tournament opening-win over New York City FC.
Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP
Jamiro Monteiro kicking the ball during the Union's tournament opening-win over New York City FC.

In other words, the 26-year-old Monteiro does a little bit of everything. When you put it all together, he is the player who truly makes the Union tick. He does things that no other midfielder on the team can, and he plays the game in a way that few in MLS can.

And he does it all while barely raising his voice. He doesn’t talk much at all, especially off the field.

“That’s an understatement,” Bedoya quipped. “There are definitely times when he becomes vocal and shows his passion, but off the field he sticks to himself.”

Monteiro lives in Center City with his wife and two daughters, and they enjoy the downtown life. But you won’t see him out and about too much.

“He doesn’t say much in the locker room — he gets along with everybody, but he’s not going to be the one that’s being loud and joking, or be the one that’s in control of the music,” Curtin said. “He’s a super-nice guy, but he’s just kind of, it’s soccer and family. Which is a good combo for me as a coach.”

Highlighting his influence

Bedoya called Monteiro “the type of player that can unlock a lot of defenses. … He’s comfortable enough to step on the ball and dribble his way out of certain situations, and then he’s also got good vision, too.”

The Union’s captain highlighted Monteiro’s outstanding chip over New England’s back line to Sergio Santos for the game’s only goal on July 25. Not only was it a great ball, but Monteiro delivered it after two short touches: one to trap Kai Wagner’s pass, the next to settle the ball, then boom.

That kind of play is why the Union broke the club transfer fee record to sign Monteiro from Metz for $2 million, and give him a Designated Player salary.

So was his role in the Union’s signature goal of the tournament so far, a coast-to-coast counter-attack against Inter Miami in the group stage. Monteiro set the pace of the play and directed the move from start to finish, but he never touched the ball — in fact, he let it roll under him twice. The whole sequence took just 13 seconds.

You might think from all of this that Monteiro would be on the ball more now than in the past, but he is not. His average number of touches per game is down from 65.6 last season to 55.7 this year, according to StatsBomb and Football Reference (the soccer site run by Baseball Reference).

His pass attempts per game (36.6), completions (45.6) and completion rate (80.3%) are also down (from 46.4, 53.9 and 86.1%, respectively). His per-game average of shot-creating actions — such as passes, dribbles and drawing fouls — is down from 3.3 to 2.7.

Curtin believes this is because opponents are keying on Monteiro much more now than they did last year, when Haris Medunjanin and Marco Fabián were the focal points of the midfield.

“As the game has evolved, unfortunately, the guys that are on the ball the most — and this isn’t just in MLS, this is in the world — are your outside backs and your centerbacks,” Curtin said. “It’s becoming harder and harder to put your best players on the ball, because defensively, teams are becoming stronger and stronger at taking that away.”

Jamiro Monteiro, left, on in the ball in front of New England's Gustavo Bou during the Union's round of 16 win over the Revolution.
John Raoux / AP
Jamiro Monteiro, left, on in the ball in front of New England's Gustavo Bou during the Union's round of 16 win over the Revolution.

The Union also generally aren’t possessing the ball as much as they used to. That was always in sporting director Ernst Tanner’s plans, given his emphasis on transition play. Medunjanin’s departure and José Andrés Martínez’s arrival symbolized that.

Monteiro admitted to being a bit frustrated by having less of the ball than in the past.

“It’s very important for me to get the ball-feeling in the game,” he said. “I think there were some games where I didn’t even [barely] touch the ball, and for me as a midfielder, it will make me a little bit angry. … For me, it’s very important that I touch the ball a lot and play so I get in the game better.”

But he made it clear he’s also happy to play alongside Martínez, and to have a key role in pushing the tempo.

“I’m a player that always wants to play the ball forward,” Monteiro said. “I’m a player that doesn’t like to play long balls and run. I think now this year, we are more busy with playing forward and playing the ball on the ground.”

How the Union found him

Monteiro was on the Union’s radar before Tanner came aboard two years ago this month. In early 2018, former sporting director Earnie Stewart got wind of Monteiro through connections in the Netherlands, where Monteiro was playing at the time.

When Curtin first saw tape of Monteiro, he said “it jumps off the page how quickly he explodes to the ball, how good his feet are.”

So did the player’s versatility.

“In Holland, he played as a No. 6, he played as a No. 8, he played as a No. 10,” Curtin said. “He was used a wide variety of ways.”

Stewart left the Union that summer to become the U.S. men’s national team’s general manager, and Tanner came in. Their philosophies were quite different, but they both believed Monteiro could fit.

“We saw less the position, just the player that we could build a franchise around in terms of the way we wanted to press,” Curtin said. “Every time we would watch the tape of him, whether he played at the 6, 8 or 10, he checked those boxes.”

Jamiro Monteiro, right, keeping the ball away from Mark McKenzie during a practice session on July 5.
Andrew Zwarych / Philadelphia Union
Jamiro Monteiro, right, keeping the ball away from Mark McKenzie during a practice session on July 5.

At the same time the Union were changing sporting directors, Monteiro was changing clubs. France’s Metz bought him that summer for a $3.5 million transfer fee, and the Union thought they had missed out.

But Monteiro never quite fit right there, in part because the manager who brought him in didn’t last long. And while the Union had Borek Dockal on loan in 2018, they knew they weren’t going to be able to keep him because his Chinese club wanted to make back the $9 million it spent to buy him.

So early last year, the Union took another shot at Monteiro, and were able to get him on a four-month loan. He was everything Tanner hoped for, and the team extended the loan through the end of the season.

Then came the really hard part: buying him outright. It took a lot of tough negotiating, but the deal got done — and Monteiro was thrilled, because he wanted to stay here.

No one could have envisioned that the Union and all of soccer would be upended by a global pandemic that would knock MLS off the field for four months. But there’s no question that Monteiro was worth the effort and the money.