TUKWILA, Wash. – With a simple text, Leo Chu represented a majority of the world last December.
“They’re going to kill us,” Sounders defender Nouhou said of the message he received from his club teammate.
It was expected banter on the eve of Cameroon’s group stage match against Chu’s native Brazil in the FIFA men’s World Cup.
Few expected what followed in Qatar’s Lusail Stadium. Lining up at left back, Nouhou helped Cameroon defeat Brazil – sans Neymar due to injury – in second-half stoppage time. The historic win wasn’t enough to advance the Indomitable Lions to the knockout stage, but the experience was invaluable for Nouhou.
Scratch that. It’s worth a cup of coffee, which Chu has yet to treat Nouhou to since their return to Sounders training this month.
“It was amazing for us,” said Nouhou, who was celebrated like royalty when he returned to his hometown in Douala, Cameroon, for a three-week vacation after the World Cup. “Everybody was happy, especially in Cameroon. We didn’t make it, but they were very proud.”
Brazil’s Antony (Manchester United) and Raphinha join Egyptian forward Mo Salah (Liverpool) and Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez (Manchester City) as high-profile players Nouhou has effectively shut down on the international stage the past year, the latter two in the Africa Cup of Nations tournament. The players have club contracts worth a combined $250 million, to tag the caliber of player Nouhou was charged with defending.
But despite his reputation, Nouhou said there was doubt he could handle the World Cup stage. He played the full 90 minutes in all three of Cameroon’s group matches.
“To play games against (big-name) players, you need to focus 90 minutes,” Nouhou, 25, said of his biggest takeaway. “For me, I was a little bit nervous before the competition because it was the World Cup. Sometimes people don’t really give some credit to MLS, they always think MLS isn’t a big level. I needed to show that to the people. I can prove myself; I can be on the best (player), but it was a challenge for me.”
Sounders coaches and teammates are eager to see how the gained confidence shows in Nouhou’s play with the club. Defending is his obvious specialty, but the seven-year MLS veteran recorded his first career goal last season and had a career-high three assists.
“His goal-scoring narrative that was on for three years kind of was a little too much,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said of his defender’s offensive pursuit. “I’m glad that he finally got that out of his way, and we can move past that a little bit.
“His main attributes are his defending; he is a lockdown defender. Nobody gets by him. We do try to work on his attacking, but part of our new little shift in how we want to play is keeping Nouhou playing to his strengths and (wingers) Jordan (Morris) and Leo Chu playing to their strengths and setting up the left side so we can balance with the right side a little bit better.”
Predictability and lack of focus for an entire match were some of the main reasons the Sounders missed the playoffs last year – a first in the club’s 14-year history.
Seattle lost 16 matches by a one-goal margin last season. The lapses in concentration first showed in a 4-3 road loss to the San Jose Quakes in April. And they kept popping up until Sporting Kansas City mathematically eliminated the Sounders from the playoffs in October.
“Last year, MLS teams found us out,” Schmetzer said. “Teams kind of knew how we played.”
Nouhou and the Sounders don’t have to wait long to see if the 2023 season can be any different. Seattle opens with the FIFA men’s Club World Cup in Morocco from Feb. 1-11.
In the past, Nouhou viewed playing in bigger tournaments as ways to be spotted by European teams to possibly garner an offer to play on loan. But in marking the new year with a tuft of blond in his temple fade haircut, Nouhou shared another realization made in Qatar – he doesn’t have to play in Europe to show he’s a great player.
“I want everything to be natural,” Nouhou said. “It’s a dream to go to Europe, but it’s not about going somewhere. I just want to be happy somewhere and go somewhere where I can have fun. For me, that’s the most important thing. That’s why, for me, I just wanted to come back here and if there’s (an offer), I will go. If not, I will stay. I’m happy to be here.”