An injury to Sounders left back Brad Smith means Nouhou is once again in a starting role with a chance to impact the team's late-season finish. And improve on a 2018 campaign that's forced him to endure some professional growth.
Sounders left back Nouhou realizes he’s getting a late-season chance to remind everybody why he was so highly regarded in the first place.
It’s been a trying sophomore season at times for the Cameroonian, who struggled early after a short offseason and then was relegated to bench duty by the July arrival of Australian import Brad Smith. But with a hamstring injury now likely sidelining Smith the remainder of the regular season, Nouhou is starting again with a chance to show off two-way speed and strength many still hope can make him a dual attacking and defensive threat.
“I still haven’t reached my potential yet,’’ said Nouhou, still only 21. “Last year, I had a good season, but then this year, right from the beginning, I had some difficulties.”
Monday night against Houston, Nouhou flashed some of what the Sounders had seen throughout his 2017 debut. He picked up the ball, made one of his breakneck jaunts down the left side — knees pumping, elbows flying like a runaway freight train — and then fed a strong, accurate cross through the box to Cristian Roldan, who set up Will Bruin for the game’s first goal.
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It was the kind of play, from start to finish, the Sounders had missed from Nouhou early on.
“There’s a lot of planning that goes into things at training camp and the preseason and there wasn’t really a lot of (offseason) time,’’ Nouhou said. “And that affected me a bit. I think it was a good learning moment for me because there’s a lot of mental preparation you need to have if you want to continue to get better and bring something more to your team.’’
The Sounders have relied increasingly on their fullbacks and wingers as outside attacking threats throughout the Brian Schmetzer coaching era to distract defenders and create more inner space for their central midfielders and forwards.
“Look, Nico Lodeiro is a massive part of our team, Bruin, Raul (Ruidiaz), down in the middle of the field yes, absolutely they are critical parts to our machine,’’ Schmetzer said. “But what happens is, those guys become more effective when the (outside) guys out here are goal dangerous.’’
The Sounders have known from the moment general manager Garth Lagerwey spotted Nouhou a few years back at a remote scouting combine in Cameroon that he’d be a work in progress. The teenager’s strength and speed had made him stand out from the dozens of other players there, but his technical skills on things like crossing the ball were as raw as they come.
Last year, it was Joevin Jones creating much of the outside threat on the left flank before rookie Nouhou took over at left back the final few months and bumped him up to left wing. With right back Kelvin Leerdam and winger Victor Rodriguez wreaking havoc on the opposite side, the Sounders took off midsummer and returned to the MLS Cup final with an attack as balanced as it gets.
“All of a sudden you’ve got two guys on each side that are really helping the team in the attack,’’ Schmetzer said. “And then it really causes problems for the other team.’’
But this year, with Jones having left for Germany, much of that left side threat was neutralized when Nouhou struggled to fill his shoes.
The Sounders had privately worried Nouhou’s shortcomings might be exposed over the longer haul without Jones being in front of him on the wing, or pushing him for playing time at left back. They sought a push by signing veteran Columbus Crew left back Waylon Francis, but he had his own struggles.
When right back Leerdam was simultaneously slowed by an early ankle injury, the team’s outside attacking ability seemingly vanished altogether. Leerdam’s eventual return solved some of the right side woes, but the left didn’t really take off until Smith was added on loan from English Premier League side Bournemouth.
Nouhou had heard rumors Smith would be signed and didn’t initially react well to sensing his starting role would end. He and the coaching staff would later have long discussions about the realities of professional sport and seizing opportunities when handed them.
Schmetzer actually seemed pleased after the victory Monday over Houston that Nouhou — who picked up his first assist and point this season on Bruin’s opening goal — had come out late with leg cramps.
“The kid put the work in,’’ Schmetzer said. “We say to some of the young guys that there are ‘demands of the game’ and the way we play, our outside backs get the ball a lot.
“And so, Nouhou is finding his way a little bit with the timing of his movements and when he goes and how he goes. So, we’ll continue to work on the technical piece, getting the crosses right. But again, he’s still a young kid.’’
And now, Nouhou has another opportunity to seize. Schmetzer said he’d consider it a bonus if Smith makes it back for any of the final three regular-season games, meaning Nouhou can play a direct role in improving the team’s positioning for what looks like a certain playoff appearance.
“I’ve got to focus all the time now,’’ Nouhou said. “Focus during games, during training and try to keep improving.’’