National Writer: Charles Boehm

Seattle’s Nouhou goes from cult hero to MLS All-Star: "It's amazing for me"

LOS ANGELES – His debut MLS All-Star experience is a richly deserved reward for Nouhou Tolo during a career season, an honor years in the making and another source of joy for the Seattle Sounders defender’s legions of fans.

“I think this was one of the best moments for my career,” he told on Tuesday, “because I have a very good season from the beginning. So I'm very happy, I'm very proud to be here. It's amazing for me.

It’s also a return to the scene of one of the offbeat Cameroonian’s most viral exploits.

It was on the Banc of California Stadium pitch that Nouhou enshrined himself in what we might call the Weird MLS Hall of Fame two years ago, after the Sounders upset LAFC in the 2019 Western Conference Championship to earn an MLS Cup berth, where they would go on to defeat Toronto FC and hoist their second league title.

If you had even half an eye on that year’s playoffs, you won’t soon forget the sight of Nouhou meeting a large beer can flung from the stands by an angry LAFC supporter with a clinical full volley – with his less-preferred right foot, no less – as the Rave Green walked over to salute their traveling fans in the venue's corner.

“Yeah, when I always come back here I will have the memory. I also have the picture, I always remember,” he said with a quick grin.

“You know, it’s just reaction. I'm like this, this is my personality. I always try to defend my teammates, it’s not a bad thing. … It’s funny but it’s my personality inside the field. Outside the field, I'm a little bit shy, like, you know, tranquilo,” he added, slyly flashing a bit of the Spanish skills his Latin American teammates have helped him pick up.

That spontaneous display of joyful defiance quickly became an enduring memory for the Seattle faithful, padding his status as a cult hero – which was already assured thanks to his effervescent energy and penchant for exhilarating unpredictability on the pitch. This is why they celebrate him as the “Nouhou Choo Choo,” including and especially on the club’s social media channels, an honorific he's embraced.

“It’s funny but I like it,” he said. “Actually most people call me the Train, because in French it’s [also] Train, so I just love it.”

The story has changed a bit this season, though. Or perhaps it’s better to say that the 24-year-old added a new chapter or two. With the Sounders’ shift to a 3-5-2 formation, coach Brian Schmetzer and his staff elected to position Nouhou – long a left back known more for his marauding runs forward than his defending – as a left center back, with Brad Smith usually taking up the wingback role on that flank.

Lo and behold, that hard-running but occasionally erratic fullback turned out to be a sterling center back, even more confident and dependable staying at home than embarking on attacking adventures. And with the Rave Green racing out to a record-breaking start (13 games unbeaten), it earned him his first All-Star nod, making it a particularly satisfying breakthrough.

“When I was younger I used to play center back,” Nouhou explained. “People didn't know that. They just pushed me to left back for one game and I just stayed there. So for me, it's not a new position.

“In 2016, when I come to the second team [Seattle’s USL Championship side], I always say my dream is to sign with the first team. I signed with the first team in 2017. I played two years; I improved myself. This year I said, 'OK, it's time for me to be one of the best defenders in the league.' So I just improved myself, [picked up] all the new information. So I'm just happy and proud about that.”

He credits the influence of the well-loved Schmetzer – “Brian is like a papa for us,” he remarked – who counseled him to focus on consistency and the psychological side of his game.

“This year I work a lot, especially mentality,” Nouhou explained. “I said OK, this is a moment for me to improve myself. I want to work out, even if I make like 200 tackles today, I’m going to wake up tomorrow and make the same thing.

“I'm proud of me,” he added mischievously.

Having just returned from an injury picked up on international duty earlier this summer, Nouhou now aims to regain full form in order to chase further achievements on multiple fronts. The Sounders plan to hunt another trophy this fall, and Cameroon wade into a hectic stretch of World Cup qualifying in Africa.

He says he declined a call-up from Indomitable Lions manager Toni Conceição for the upcoming international window to focus on his fitness with an eye toward the coming months' intense physical demands.

“I talked to the coach two days ago, they put me to the pre-list but I tell him I'm not ready. I'm honest, I didn't play two months and a half, I'm not ready to play 90 minutes. So hopefully I’m going to work hard and come back soon in October, because we have World Cup qualification again,” said Nouhou.

“Cameroon-United States, flying commercial, you have one day to fly, your feet are going to get heavy. I’m just back from injuries – it’s not easy. The national team, they don't really have time, they just want to play; you have to be ready by yourself. I just want to take my time and be ready and come back to the national team.”

He may also have other big decisions to consider in 2022. Nouhou has drawn transfer interest from clubs in France and elsewhere in Europe, plus came close to a move in late 2018. He’s a happy Sounder but still harbors ambitions about new challenges to come.

“I don't want to fight with the club because when I come here, the club gave me everything. I want to take my time,” he said. “If I have a good opportunity, I will go. So I just want to focus on the Seattle Sounders. We'll see what happens after the season.”