Fast-forward to the final month of 2017 and the 20-year-old Cameroonian is looking very much like the Sounders’ left back of the future.
On a Seattle team that is typically reliant on veterans and known commodities, Nouhou (formerly known as Nouhou Tolo before choosing to drop his last name before the start of this season) is neither of those things. Even after he signed his MLS deal with Seattle following a season with the club’s USL affiliate Sounders 2, there were few expectations that he would be much more than a depth piece, or that he would become an integral part of the Sounders’ first-team rotation.
As it turns out, Nouhou has become exactly that. He logged 1,052 minutes in 19 matches this season, 10 of them starts, and has started all four of Seattle's playoff matches entering Saturday's MLS Cup (4 pm ET | ESPN, UniMas, TSN, TVAS) against Toronto FC. With Joevin Jones set to leave the club after the season to join 2. Bundesliga side Darmstadt, Nouhou should become an even bigger part of Seattle’s setup in 2018.
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“We’re pleasantly surprised with Nouhou,” Sounders sporting director Chris Henderson said after a November training session at Starfire Sports Complex. “I think he’s developed a great amount this year, I think [with] his confidence and some of the things he’s brought to his game. He really got thrown in the mix and he’s stepped up in some big moments.”
Nouhou burst onto the MLS scene seemingly out of nowhere.
He made his first league start in Seattle’s 1-1 draw against Orlando City at CenturyLink Field on June 21 and turned heads almost immediately, with his blinding speed and exaggerated, arm-pumping running motion leaving the Sounders fans in attendance that day asking a pair of similar questions.
“Who is that guy? And where did he come from?”
Nouhou was first discovered on a 2015 scouting trip to Cameroon taken by Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey and former S2 general manager Kurt Schmid, who is now the Director of Player Personnel and Scouting for the LA Galaxy. On that trip, Lagerwey and Schmid visited a player showcase organized by Leo Cullen, a former teammate of Lagerwey’s on the Miami Fusion in 1999.
“A really determined kid,” Lagerwey recalled of his first impression of Nouhou in an interview with MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday. “He was with the Cameroon youth national team at the time and he had to take a bus overnight to come to the tryout where we were. He was willing to do that. So, he was very, very determined to get an opportunity to be seen.
“When we met him, he was a very humble kid. We spoke to him and, at first, he was shy, almost. But very deferential. You could just see how hungry he was.”
Ask any member of the Sounders’ coaching staff or front office who deserves the lion’s share of the credit for Nouhou’s on-field development and they’ll undoubtedly offer up the same name: That would be assistant coach Djimi Traore, an English Premier League veteran who won a Champions League title with Liverpool in 2005 and also played for the Sounders from 2013-2014.
Following his retirement, Traore joined the Sounders’ coaching staff, where he’s been tasked with acting as a mentor to many of the club’s young players. While a large part of that job includes the soccer side of things, Traore, a former Malian international who was born and raised in France, says helping with the cultural adjustments that come with moving to a new country has become a big part of his role as well.
“It’s easy for Nouhou or the French-speaking guys to come and speak to me when they need help or they need stuff,” Traore said. “And I try to help them, you know, not as a coach but like as a big brother.
“I know where he comes from, he’s from Africa, my parents are from Africa even if I was born in France. I know it’s very difficult because it’s a big, big move. I still remember when I moved to England I was 19, it was the same way. I didn’t know how to speak English, it was difficult. That’s why I try to help him.”
It isn’t just Traore. Lagerwey says the Sounders put a team-wide emphasis on helping their imported talent adapt to their new surroundings, adding that he believes that goes hand in hand with how those players develop on the field. When it comes to Nouhou, Lagerwey also credited former S2 team services coordinator Kate Norton, who is now an assistant women’s soccer coach at the University of Arizona.
“It’s a lot of support stuff if you talk about the day-to-day, ferrying him from the apartment to practice back and forth, making sure he’s got food. If you’ve literally never left your home country, [everything] is different,” Lagerwey said.
“You have to have that infrastructure set up to support him. You can’t just say, ‘we’re going to bring him in, we’re going to throw him on the field, we’re going to coach him up.’ You have to support them off the field and get them comfortable. If you can do that, then you have a chance at some of the soccer stuff.”
For as unexpectedly fast as he’s developed, Nouhou is still undeniably raw. He plays the game with an enthusiasm and flair that can occasionally tread the line into reckless. It’s part of what makes him fun to watch and has turned him into a fan-favorite, but the feeling around the Sounders is that he’s also far from having reached his ceiling.
“Nouhou is exciting. And when you describe a defender as ‘exciting’ that’s not always the first attribute that you want,” said Lagerwey. “I like really boring predictable defenders. But, look, he’s a young kid. He’s expressing himself and he’s growing right before our eyes. I think it’s so fun, the relationship he has with the crowd, I think he feeds off it. I love that our crowd has embraced him.”
“He’s a Seattle kid,” he added. “We brought him to Seattle and he adjusted to Seattle as a really young kid and now he’s playing for the Sounders. We look at S2 as the extension of the academy and he’s our very first big success from our [S2] player development pipeline and that’s really exciting. He’s a product of Seattle. He developed here.”
For Lagerwey, the focus is now on turning Nouhou’s success and trying to use it as something of a blueprint for importing and developing talent in the future. As for the present, Jones’ pending departure leaves the team with the task of replacing one of the most dynamic wide defenders in MLS.
In Nouhou, the hope for the Sounders is that they already have their man.