The Cameroon native manages to overcome long odds to play Major League Soccer while adapting to a foreign country and foreign language.
Nouhou Tolo knew by age 15 he needed to distinguish himself from scores of other teenage boys in his country hoping to become professional soccer players.
There’d been no shortage of raw talent in his Cameroonian hometown of Douala, a port city of 2.4 million where most teenage players dreamed of representing the nation’s Indomitable Lions on the World Cup stage. To stand apart from that crowd, he’d not only have to improve his natural speed and strength, but develop the technical and mental parts of his game.
“I had to work twice as hard,’’ said Nouhou, now 20, who made his Major League Soccer debut in June and has since been featured regularly by a Sounders team that resumes its schedule Wednesday night against D.C. United at CenturyLink Field. “Because I wanted to reach the top level, make it higher than the rest. I’d be out on the field running every morning and working to improve my overall awareness, because, in Cameroon, there isn’t as much of that.
“And I think it’s because of that training that I’m able to have some of those qualities today.’’
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It wasn’t easy. First, he needed to play his way out of his own house.
For Nouhou, who prefers to go by his first name only, events in 2012 combined to set him toward that higher level. His mother, Aissatou, had died the previous year after a lengthy illness, leaving his father, Issiaka, to raise their family of five children alone.
His father was a currency exchanger for a local bank, raising his three boys and two girls in a modest home where Nouhou insists he had “everything we wanted’’ except permission to keep playing the sport he loved. Cameroon is very patriarchal – a father’s word akin to law – and his dad insisted he give up soccer and focus on school.
Nouhou, the second oldest child, realized he had to jump-start his career right then or give it up.
He threw himself into the game like never before, waking up early to train on dirt fields strewn with rocks and broken glass. After school was done, he’d head back to those fields anew.
His uncle, Aboudaga, kept his father at-bay and encouraged young Nouhou to pursue his dream. Nouhou admits his country’s soccer infrastructure is underdeveloped and money for proper training scarce.
But he caught a break that year when invited to join Cameroon Under-17 national side as a central defender. Soon after, he was pushed out wide so his natural speed and size could be fully exploited.
Indeed, the Cameroon style has always involved athleticism and physical play. There are times Nouhou looks like a runaway freight train barreling up and down the left side of the field at top speed, seemingly oblivious to anyone in his path.
The Sounders do want a little chaos from Nouhou. But, like the rest of their possession-based game, it has to be controlled chaos.
“In Cameroon, it’s much more about being athletic and physical,’’ Nouhou said. “But over here, it’s a lot more technical and tactical.‘’
And he’s worked on it.
The U-17 stint gave Nouhou confidence to turn professional. He spent a season with Botafogo FC in the Cameroon second division, then their first division side a year later. In 2015, he joined Rainbow FC, a club Cameroonian players use to transition to other international leagues.
The Sounders spotted Nouhou late in 2015 at a player combine in Cameroon organized by agent Leo Cullen of the James Grant agency. Cullen had played alongside Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey in 1999 for the Miami Fusion and implored his onetime teammate to visit the tryout camp.
Lagerwey obliged, as did Sounders director of player personnel Kurt Schmid.
“His athleticism really stuck out,’’ Schmid said of Nouhou. “His ability to get up and down the line, his speed, his jumping ability – even though he’s still working on his heading technique.
“You’d see some good starting points that we could build on.’’
One of those was Nouhou’s crossing ability, a skill honed those extra training sessions. He also grasped tactical aspects and was aware of his on-field positioning.
His improved mental focus and toughness came in handy when a dispute over Nouhou’s rights broke out between the Rainbow and Botafogo teams and threatened to derail him from signing with the Sounders.
“I just stayed mentally strong,’’ Nouhou said. “I knew it would work out.’’
By April 2016, it had, with Rainbow prevailing and earning Nouhou’s transfer fee money.
Nouhou arrived in Seattle to join Sounders2 of the United Soccer League. But a whole new set of challenges awaited.
Nouhou spoke only French and was used to a tropical climate. He didn’t know how to work a car seat belt, nor boil water on his own.
The Sounders worked with him on adapting culturally. He’s learned enough English to understand most of what’s said.
He’d used a moped to get around Douala and still doesn’t drive a car. But he lives just a few minutes from the team’s Tukwila training compound, with his favorite Japanese and Mexican restaurants close by.
“The lifestyle is very different here,’’ Nouhou said. “It’s easy to come to the United States, relax and say life is terrific. But no, that’s not how it works. You have to keep working hard if you want to get anywhere.’’
Sounders GM Lagerwey is impressed by Nouhou’s improvements on and off the field.
“The transformation in that kid from when we met him is incredible,’’ Lagerwey said of Nouhou. “He was shy, almost deferential. When you addressed him, he wouldn’t make eye contact. His body language was almost submissive. To watch him grow as a person has been really fun.’’
Nouhou is more outgoing, his confidence high after 24 games with S2 last season and leading the team in minutes played. He was named to Cameroon’s U-20 side last January at the African Cup of Nations in Zambia.
And his father, once so worried about his son’s future, has long since relaxed.
“He’s truly very proud of what I’ve done in soccer,’’ Nouhou said. “He’s watched me play games on national television and it isn’t everybody who can say that about their son.’’
Not in Cameroon, they can’t. Nouhou, much hard work later, is standing apart.
• Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei was added to the 24-man roster that is taking on Real Madrid in the 2017 MLS All-Star Game on Aug. 2 in Chicago. A total of 13 players have been added to the roster, with Frei being one of 11 selections by Chicago Fire coach Veljko Paunović to go alongside two commissioner’s picks. The All-Star Fan XI was announced earlier this month.