SEATTLE – Sounders left back Nouhou spent much of the winter wondering which side of the Atlantic he’d be playing on this season.
But as rumors swirled that he’d be loaned out to French sides Stade Rennais and Olympique Marseille, or Italian squad Palmero, the Cameroon native tried to stay focused on a personal fitness regimen he’d started earlier this offseason.
Some healthier eating habits and increased gym work left him 6 pounds lighter, looking less top-heavy and prepared to bring an added speed element to his game.
“I was a bit bulkier before starting this regimen and decided I wanted to be a little slimmer and quicker and more careful with what I eat,” Nouhou said Tuesday following his first workout with the team since obtaining his work visa for the season. “I ate leaner, with a lot less fast food. I didn’t run a whole lot, but I did more work in the weight room.”
Nouhou’s arrival in camp was all the Sounders needed to execute a deal that sent veteran left back Waylon Francis back to the Columbus Crew for $50,000 in General Allocation Money. Francis, 28, was brought in a year ago to push Nouhou, but was beaten out for playing time by him and July loan import Brad Smith from the English Premier League.
Now, as then, the only serious left back competition in training camp – which continues in Arizona for 12 days later this week – is whether it’s third-year defensive stalwart Nouhou or the more offensive-minded Smith who gets the majority of starts when the Major League Soccer season opens next month. Both could start for several MLS teams, though Nouhou is still only 21 and thought to have plenty of untapped potential.
Nouhou’s personal focus on his overall fitness has to be a welcome sign for the Sounders, who wondered about his maturity at times last season and were perplexed with his getting caught up the field on defense after some extended runs. Smith’s speed is a major plus for his game and anything Nouhou – already fairly quick for his previous 5-foot-10, 175-pound heft – can do to improve upon his would help narrow any gap between him and the more veteran defender.
Experience could also play a role.
Nouhou was disappointed with losing his starting job to Smith last summer and didn’t handle it well at first. But he eventually coped with his first serious professional setback and regained a starting role in the late season and playoffs once Smith was lost for the year with a hamstring injury.
“I think I have to be more decisive this year because that’s what was missing from my game,” said Nouhou, who at times appeared caught between his offensive and defensive transition game. “I think I have to stay encouraged and not put too much pressure on myself because I’m 21 and I already have two years behind me with Seattle.
“Starting isn’t really the thing I’m worried about. The most important thing for me is to keep my head, work on improving the talent I’ve always had and becoming a decisive player and scoring goals because that’s a part of the position I play.”
The Sounders, dating back to DeAndre Yedlin, have viewed their fullbacks as an integral part of their offense. Much was lost on offense when Joevin Jones headed to Germany after notching a goal and 11 assists in 2017 and was followed last season by Nouhou and Francis combining for just two assists between them.
Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said Tuesday it was apparent Francis was the odd man out once Nouhou made it through last week’s European transfer window without a deal getting done. Francis had been left off a trip to Portland last summer after expressing his displeasure over a lack of playing time in a training session. Alhough he later apologized and made it through season’s end without further incident, it became clear he’d be no higher than third on the left back depth chart this year.
“Waylon was a guy that we brought in to compete for the starting left back job and as it played out, he wasn’t able to win that job,” Lagerwey said. “And so, we looked to recoup that investment. We feel that we’re very strong at left back. We have Brad Smith and Nouhou, two guys that are starting-level players that have started in this league and arguably in leagues that are better than this.”
It was Lagerwey who first spotted a raw-looking Nouhou in a rudimentary combine camp in Cameroon several years ago. Nouhou has few bigger boosters than Lagerwey within the organization and the GM said he’s confident Nouhou will give Smith a fight for the starting job.
“I think he’s going to come and work everyday and that’s what he did (toward the end of last season),” Lagerwey said. “He didn’t stop competing when we signed Brad Smith. Yeah, Brad got some games in front of him, but that was a period of maybe a month when it was Brad’s job and that leaves the other eight or nine months when it was at least arguably Nouhou’s job.
“Again, I think it’s going to be a competition. I think that both guys are good. … I mean, it’s really hard to find left backs anywhere in the world. And to have two guys you think can legitimately start at a high level, that’s a good problem to have if nothing else.”
With Smith a candidate to be recalled by his English Bournemouth team in August, Nouhou may ultimately be the only legitimate left back starter come season’s end.
Having rumored interest by multiple European sides in his services also didn’t hurt Nouhou’s self-confidence as he worked out in his hometown of Douala, having dinner with his family and hanging out with friends but otherwise focused on soccer. Like most soccer players in Cameroon, he’d grown up dreaming of a career in Europe.
“I heard all of it,” Nouhou said. “But for me, I was a little disappointed in my season last year and going to France wasn’t going to fix everything for me. I knew that the best thing was to concentrate on coming in here and doing the best I can to reach my potential.
“If I do that and things work out and I play well while I’m still young, those chances in Europe will eventually still be there later on.”