New addition Djimi Traore, a veteran defender of the top leagues in England and France, has been a steadying force in an up-and-down season for the Sounders, who play at Chivas USA at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
TUKWILA — The gesture happened so casually that coach Sigi Schmid didn’t even notice.
As Mauro Rosales was substituted out of a May 4 game in Philadelphia, he elected to pass the Sounders’ captain’s armband to a surprised recipient: defender Djimi Traore.
Why did Rosales designate the honor to a player in his first year with the team? Traore, a well-traveled 33-year-old veteran, had signed less than three months earlier and was playing his sixth MLS game.
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Rosales’ answer, similar to many others regarding Traore, was effusive with praise.
“I think his experience is enough to wear the armband, and I’m very proud to have a teammate like that,” Rosales said. “He knows how to treat everybody. He’s come into the group very easily because he’s a very nice guy, a very kind guy.
“It’s not just who is wearing the armband. It’s also how good they are as a person in the group on and off the pitch. For us, it’s an honor to have a player like Djimi.”
In an up-and-down Sounders season that continues at Chivas USA at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Traore has been an instant hit and a steadying force. His résumé demands credibility, as he played seven years for renowned English club Liverpool, where he helped win the 2005 UEFA Champions League title. But Traore has also earned the respect of his new teammates and coaches with a humble attitude, impressive performance, and some unforgettable goals.
“Djimi has been a revelation for us,” Schmid said. “We knew we were getting a good pro and a guy with a good personality. How consistent he’s been able to play for us, and his steadiness of being on the field game-in and game-out has been really, really good.”
A natural leader
Traore often wore the captain’s armband on youth teams in France.
“I don’t know why — maybe because I was tallest on the team,” he joked with his thick French accent.
Truth is, the 6-foot-3 Traore knows his calm, confident demeanor has always been reassuring to teammates, from his first kicks all the way to time spent in top leagues in England and France.
When Traore’s contract with Marseille ended in May 2012, he targeted a move to MLS the following year. Upon signing with Seattle in February, Traore understood his role immediately.
“They brought me here because of my experience, and if I can transfer that on and off the pitch, it’s good for the team,” he said. “I try to be an example.”
For a Sounders team that lost its top-paid forward, midfielder and defender from last season, Traore hasn’t disappointed as a locker-room presence.
Seattle rookie Ashani Fairclough, a central defender, called Traore a “role model.”
“He gives me pointers on how to be a professional, how to be a good center back, how to be a good teammate,” Fairclough said. “I’m looking forward to spending the next months and years learning from him.”
A pro’s pro
As the Sounders have flip-flopped from winning streak to losing streak this season, Brad Evans hasn’t had to look far for guidance.
“He’s been through rough patches before in his career,” said Evans, a longtime fan of Liverpool who watched Traore play for the Reds, “so maybe he’s a guy we look to and say everything will be fine once we settle down and things go our way a little bit.”
Zach Scott called Traore “a professional’s professional.”
“He not only brings that leadership in his play,” Scott added, “but he brings leadership in his talk and his ability to communicate, which is what we’ve sorely missed in the past.”
Intangibles aside, Traore has also produced some of the season’s most sensational and important goals.
In just his second game with Seattle, Traore ripped a 35-yard screamer of a goal that sparked a comeback against Tigres UANL on March 12. The strike, which has nearly 1.5 million views on YouTube, helped Seattle become the first MLS team to eliminate a Mexican squad in the CONCACAF Champions League knockout stages.
Then, on May 8 at Sporting Kansas City, Traore scored a winner in the fourth minute of stoppage time — the latest goal in franchise history.
Traore had only two goals in his professional career before joining the Sounders (excluding a goal with the Malian national team). He equaled that in 10 games here.
Deep inside, he said, he knew he had this kind of soccer left in him.
“Even though my body doesn’t have 10 years of football left,” he said, “I knew I had a few.”
A new home
Traore realizes Seattle is the final stop in his distinguished career.
“When I signed here for two years, to be honest, I knew it would be my last club,” he said. “I’ve talked with my missus and my family, and I know I don’t want to move around again. The past few years I’ve moved around a lot, and I’d just prefer to be with a good club and enjoy my football. I know I’ve won a lot of trophies in Europe — I’m pleased with that — and here I’ve found a great organization and I love it.”
Moving to the Pacific Northwest was about more than just soccer, though.
“That was our goal — to live here, see what’s happening,” said Traore, a native Parisian, “and after two years, if we like it, we will stay here.”
Traore lives in Bellevue with his partner and two children — son Noah, 5, and infant daughter Malia. His Twitter feed is full of pictures from Pike Place Market, the Seattle Children’s Museum, parks and, of course, Starbucks.
“I’m enjoying it, my kids love it, and my missus, too,” he said. “That for me is most important — that my family is happy. When my family is happy, you can see it on the pitch: I feel happy, I feel free in my head, and I can play 100 percent.”
And with stalwart defense, leadership and the occasional highlight-reel goal, Traore hopes to help the Sounders reach their full potential, as well.