SEATTLE – Two minutes. That’s all it took for Blaise Nkufo to make an impact with his new side.
Two minutes into his first appearance with Sounders FC, he slid a delicate touch pass to Fredy Montero, whose sudden shot flew just wide of the post and Celtic FC keeper Dominic Cervi.
It was the first of a series of dangerous situations the Swiss national striker and designated savior of the Sounders’ troubled second season made Sunday in his debut match.
With 14 games left in the regular season, Nkufo is exactly the midseason shot in the arm the longshot Sounders need to make a playoff run.
He returns hope to this season.
“I was impressed with his ability to hold the ball up, and that’s going to be so important for Seattle,” said ESPN analyst Kyle Martino. “With all of the ability the Sounders have on their squad, having a forward they know can hold the ball up so they can commit more players forward, that’s going to bring Seattle up to the kind of team we saw early this season and a lot of last season.
“They can really dominate teams on the attack. Players like Montero and (Osvaldo) Alonso and (Steve) Zakuani are going to be put in very good positions. Now they have to find ways to reward him for the runs he makes into the box, by scoring and by converting his services.”
Nkufo slows down the game. Because of his size (6-foot-2) and strength, he is practically impossible to budge off the ball. He is so chiseled, he may have less body fat than the statue of him that stands outside the stadium of his former Dutch club, FC Twente.
Nkufo is unique in the MLS. It is unusual to have a forward that big and immovable in the middle of the attack. He shields the ball from defenders the same way Dwight Howard or Joakim Noah shields off rebounders.
He isn’t fleet, but he clears space in the box that hasn’t been available for the Sounders in this stuttering 5-8-4 start to their season.
“He’s very, very good at holding the ball,” said forward Zakuani, who came into Sunday’s game after Nkufo was gone. “I think he just wants to get guys involved, which is perfect. He’s a good guy. He fits into the team, which is important, and he’s exactly the kind of striker we need at the moment.
“I think the pieces are there now. We need time on the training ground now. It won’t happen overnight. It’s a matter of me and the other guys learning what he likes and him learning what we like. I don’t think it will be difficult, because he’s a top-notch player.”
Despite playing a man down after Sounders starting keeper Terry Boss was red-carded in the 29th minute, Nkufo gave the 45,631 at Qwest a tasty preview of the rest of the season.
He played 60 minutes in the entertaining 2-1 exhibition loss to Celtic. In the 10th minute he got free for a dangerous low header from a cross by Montero and was whacked in the head for the effort. Later, he won a ball on the ground and one-touched a pass to Sanna Nyassi.
“As his fitness improves and as his touch improves, I think we’re going to have a lot of fun,” coach Sigi Schmid said.
This was Nkufo’s first game since playing for the Swiss in the World Cup. He has had just two training sessions with his new teammates.
“I like to play one- or two-touch,” said Nkufo, offering a self-scouting report. “This was our first game and we showed some good movement, and the more games we play together, the better we’ll be. This team can be a good team.”
Since the season began in late March, the Sounders have been waiting for his arrival. They almost waited too long. For stretches in this early season it felt like they were waiting for Godot, waiting for the hope that wasn’t going to arrive.
Now, they have a week’s worth of training time to get comfortable with their new world-class striker before Sunday’s home game against Colorado.
They probably need to find 24 points out of these final 14 games to become legitimate playoff contenders.
“He (Nkufo) makes everyone around him better,” said defender Taylor Graham, who assisted on David Estrada’s goal. “The more dangerous players you have on a pitch, as a defender, it’s horrible because you’re always looking around.”
And it could be thrilling to watch.