The airport terminal is buzzing with the typical white noise that accompanies the traveling hordes.
Then, suddenly and without warning, laughter erupts from one group congregated in a corner at Gate 8. A small crowd of Sounders FC players and staff is surrounding one man and his deck of cards. That’s when the team saw a whole new side to Blaise Nkufo.
The Swiss striker is known for his ability to see things develop seconds before the action takes place. He then distributes the ball or moves into the newly opened space accordingly.
In the media, he is careful with his words, contemplative even. English is not his first language and he is working day-by-day on improving his vocabulary to make sure that the way he presents himself to the public is expressed just the way he wants.
He is one of two Sounders, along with the other designated player Alvaro Fernandez, who played in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Around his teammates, he is looked at as something of a sage, his wisdom garnered from 17 seasons as a pro and over 200 career goals. Most recently, he spent seven seasons in Holland playing for FC Twente, where he was so beloved by the fans, that a statue was erected outside the stadium in his likeness.
Similarly, he holds court with his deck of cards. He can do the standard card tricks, wowing teammates with his ability to find their 2 of clubs or 9 of hearts, as if by magic, amongst the 52-card deck.
However, one of his tricks defies all logic - to the point of mysticism.
In this instance, he lays six cards face down on the ground and asks Sanna Nyassi to select one of the cards while Nkufo walks away, assuring that he can’t see which card is chosen. When Nyassi is ready, Nkufo returns to his chair and stares intently at the six cards in front of him. He looks at each card and closes his eyes, as if picturing in his mind which card Nyassi picked. He hovers his hands over the cards, like he is sensing the answer from the cards themselves. He smiles - as though he knows something nobody else in the growing crowd knows.
“This one’s hard,” he says to nobody in particular, but in a way that sounds like he is mocking Nyassi for thinking that this time he wouldn’t be able to get it right.
Then, after considerable consternation, he turns over Nyassi’s card and another eruption of laughter bursts from the crowd.
“What?” Nkufo says, playing to the crowd again with a laugh of his own. “Is it right?”
He smiles at the bemused, amazed and puzzled looks around him.
Then he repeats the trick with Steve Zakuani, Tyrone Marshall and anyone else who dares test his clairvoyance.
“Friends show you tricks and you pick them up,” Nkufo said with a matter-of-fact tone. “We spend so much time together on the road that we have to learn to live together. Some play cards, some do other things. It’s just a part of the life on the road.”
The card tricks are just a small example of how Nkufo has found himself mixing with teammates on the lengthy road trips the club has already been on in the short time since he joined the team in mid-July. From the moment he joined the team in Washington, D.C., he has been seeking out players for conversation – whether it be about soccer, politics, jokes or anything else in between.
“Everybody likes to have fun. Life is really serious, but when you’re with good friends, you can be serious or have fun,” Nkufo said. “We’re having fun right now.”
For all of his off-field additions to the club, he has been equally successful on the field. In San Jose, he nearly scored his first goal on several occasions, requiring a Herculean effort from Earthquakes goalkeeper Jon Busch to keep him out of the net. Meanwhile, his talents holding up the ball and distributing from deeper positions has opened up channels for the Sounders FC’s speedy wingers.
“Right now I’m still working on my fitness. These last two weeks have been hard, but it’s getting better. I try to keep progressing,” he said. “I need some training sessions to get to play with the guys. The last game was a good game though. The first half was a good half. We showed great touch and great combinations.”
Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid loves what he has seen from Nkufo, even crediting him a bit for Fredy Montero’s recent surge in success that helped him win the MLS Player of the Month honor for the month of July with two goals and three assists in five matches, two of which were played with Nkufo as his strike partner.
“With each game it will get better,” Schmid said. “He always talks to the guys off the field and that helps. I expect him and Montero’s relationship to continue to grow, but also his understanding with the other players.”
As that understanding matures, so too will the Sounders hopes at an MLS Cup, CONCACAF Champions League title or second consecutive US Open Cup.
Even if it does take a little sleight of hand.