TUKWILA, Wash. – Sounders left back Nouhou says it’s been fun squaring off in a playoff series against an opponent from his hometown in Cameroon.
But though Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Tony Tchani hails from his port city of Douala and is eight years older, Nouhou says it wasn’t like he grew up idolizing him. In fact, he only first heard about Tchani four years ago when both were invited to a Cameroon national team selection camp.
Nouhou was in the national junior team’s portion of the camp and knew of a Major League Soccer player from the Columbus Crew training with the senior side. It wasn’t until this season he realized Tchani was that same player.
“It’s a pleasure playing against a Cameroonian, an African, in the same stadium and challenging each other,” said Nouhou, who faces Tchani and the Whitecaps again Thursday at CenturyLink Field in the second of a two-leg Western Conference semifinal series. “It’s a good feeling and makes me proud.”
The odds of Douala natives facing one another in the playoffs is unlikely. There have only been 16 Cameroonians in MLS history and just four from Douala.
Of the four active Cameroonians in MLS, Nouhou and Tchani are the only Douala natives. And this matchup only happened because Tchani, after spending his entire career in the Eastern Conference, was traded to Vancouver by Columbus in March for Kekuta Manneh and $300,000 in allocation funds.
Tchani, 28, moved with his family from Cameroon to the U.S. in 2004, then starred for the University of Virginia before becoming a second overall pick by New York Red Bulls in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft. Nouhou remained with his family in Douala until joining the Sounders and playing for their United Soccer League entry last season.
Tchani and Nouhou have spoken to each other briefly in their native French before games.
“We just wish each other luck and things like that,” Nouhou said.
The teams played to a scoreless draw Sunday in Vancouver, meaning the Sounders need a victory to advance and keep defending their MLS Cup title.
The opener saw Nouhou, 20, start his first playoff game in place of Joevin Jones, who was bumped up to an attacking midfield role. Nouhou featured prominently in the match, helping throw a defensive net around Vancouver’s attack with his hard-charging, breakneck style of play.
But the B.C. Place Stadium fans didn’t appreciate Nouhou in the game’s final stages, booing him vociferously when he twice collapsed to the turf with apparent injuries. Nouhou was on the ground, barely moving for over a minute the first time around and then got up and resumed playing with a slight limp.
“It was a cramp,’’ Nouhou said. “Both times.”
The second time around, the Whitecaps – convinced Nouhou was stalling to let time expire – didn’t kick the ball out of bounds to stop play so he could be assisted. That peeved the Sounders and sparked an on-field melee of pushing and shoving.
After Nouhou again got up and kept playing, he was booed whenever he touched the ball.
“They thought I was delaying the game, but that wasn’t the case,” he said. “It was really a cramp.”
Nouhou suffered a more serious shoulder injury during a practice collision with Aaron Kovar on Tuesday. The shoulder had been dislocated earlier this season and briefly separated again when he collided with Kovar.
But training staff popped the shoulder back in to place and Nouhou, who trained Wednesday, pronounced himself fully ready to go. The Sounders could play him at left back and Jones higher up again, with midfielder Victor Rodriguez due to start Thursday’s match as a substitute after missing two games with a quad muscle injury.
Clint Dempsey, on the other hand, will return after serving a one-game suspension for a red card in the season finale. Dempsey said he didn’t agree with the red card, but “at the end of the day, I don’t make those decisions.”
He said it was tough watching from the bench Sunday, reminding him of being sidelined with an irregular heartbeat during the team’s 2016 championship run.
“You want to be out there trying to help your teammates,” he said. “But they played really well and we got the job done.”
But if they want to continue on, they’ll have to rely on more than just defenders. Before the night is done, somebody will have to score this time around.