SEATTLE – They were teenagers from the same hometown, hoping to make it in soccer overseas from a place where getting noticed wasn’t easy.
Sounders left back Nouhou and newly-promoted striker Felix Chenkam had grown up soccer standouts a year apart in age in the Cameroon port city of Douala. They’d turned professional for rival local teams by their mid-teens, would later meet in a U20 tryout camp and then follow a similar route out of their Central African nation and into the United States.
“I got to know Felix when we were younger and in the national team’s selection camp,” Nouhou, 20, said. “He was still playing on the second team and he was a little guy, but I loved his courage and determination.”
Chenkam, 19, said having Nouhou here has made his Seattle transition easier.
“The conditions here aren’t the same as in Cameroon, so when I got here it was difficult,” Chenkam said. “I’ve known him for some time, so having him around to help me made things better.”
Though Douala is Cameroon’s biggest city at 2.4 million, the nation’s soccer infrastructure is notoriously poor and its players can go undiscovered if located outside the capital of Yaounde. Of the 17 Cameroonians to play in an MLS game, only five hail from Douala and Nouhou and Chenkam would be the first from that city to team together on the field.
Chenkam would be the sixth Douala native and 18thCameroonian to play in MLS. He dressed last weekend after being added to the first team roster but didn’t play against Real Salt Lake. It’s unclear whether he’ll play in Saturday’s rematch at RSL with the Sounders facing multiple MLS and U.S. Open Cup matches in the week ahead.
The addition of Nouhou and now Chenkam comes courtesy of a growing pipeline from Cameroon into MLS that the Sounders have been active participants in. It’s a pipeline that’s expanded scouting of players to all corners of the country, engineered primarily by the controversial Rainbow Bamenda FC squad in Cameroon’s third division.
The Sounders the past two years have acquired Nouhou, Chenkam and Sounders2 second division defender Rodrigue Ele from the Rainbow side.
Critics contend Rainbow isn’t so much a team as it is a foreign branch of its corporate owner, the London-based Rainbow World Group run by CEO Kingsley Pungong – a Wharton business school graduate and former manager in the Washington, D.C. office of the Wasserman Media Group. They say Rainbow skirts FIFA rules preventing “third party ownership” of players by anyone other than their present team.
Rainbow World Group represents dozens of African soccer players and its subsidiary, Rainbow Investments Group, is listed as the official owner of the Bamenda-based squad. Not much is known about the Rainbow team’s board of directors and it has virtually no online presence.
Founded in 2010, the team plays at the 5,000-seat Mankon Municipal Stadium in Bamenda, a city 190 miles north of Douala. But while pro prospects the team exports overseas may train with Rainbow, many never actually play for it. Instead, they continue playing for their own clubs – said to “partner” with Rainbow – and then participate in showcase camps arranged by the team and attended by scouts from leagues worldwide.
This includes MLS teams invited by the U.S.-based James Grant Sports Management agency.
It’s this type of activity fueling the outcry about Rainbow exercising third party ownership of players. But for now, the practice continues.
Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey played alongside James Grant agent Leo Cullen with the Miami Fusion in 1999 and spotted Nouhou in 2015 at a remote selection camp after his ex-teammate invited him there. Had the camp not been arranged, it’s questionable whether Douala native Nouhou would have ever been discovered.
Not all Cameroon teams are enamored with Rainbow and its international pipeline.
Nouhou’s former Botafogo team from Douala – which he left in 2015 to join the Rainbow side – got into a dispute with Rainbow over the transfer fee the Sounders paid to land him. Rainbow eventually prevailed, but the resulting delay of several months meant Nouhou didn’t join Sounders2 until April 2016 with their season already underway.
Chenkam had played professionally for Union Douala FC before transferring to Rainbow on Jan. 1, 2017. Within seven weeks, he’d transferred overseas – along with Ele – to Sounders2.
Lagerwey has said he prefers to stay out of Cameroon soccer politics and its murkier dealings and squabbles. But the Sounders have certainly benefitted from the pipeline and their Cameroonian players have been helped by living and training alongside others from their homeland.
Nouhou shares an apartment with fellow French-speaker and Martinique native Jordy Delem, a Sounders midfielder. Chenkam and Sounders2 teammate Ele share a place as well, so the foursome will get together to go supermarket shopping and take turns having dinner at their respective apartments.
When Nouhou first came here, he didn’t know how to use a car seatbelt because he’d always driven a moped. Chenkam doesn’t drive either. Delem does any required driving for them.
Chenkam also said that when he and Ele arrived here they couldn’t believe how cold the early Washington spring was compared to Cameroon. Nouhou helped them pick out what to wear.
That wasn’t his only adjustment.
“Nutrition was a big thing because the food here isn’t the same as in Cameroon,” he said. “But it wasn’t as bad as it could have been because I at least know how to cook. So, if I see some ingredients that I know at the supermarket, I can at least buy it there and make something at home.”
Nouhou says he tries to help whenever he can. Not only with off-field advice, but what to do on it as well.
“I think he’s improved in a lot of areas since he’s been here,” he said. “With all of us, it takes time to adjust, but then you get there.”