Editor’s note: This is the lead feature in Issue 11 of Sounders Monthly, Sounders FC’s original magazine. They are available for free at The NINETY, GuestLink Services locations, Soccer Celebration and Membership Central.
During the Seattle Sounders run to their 2016 MLS Cup title, Nouhou watched, quietly, from a distance. Then a 19-year-old Sounders FC 2 player in his first USL season after transferring from Rainbow FC in Cameroon, Nouhou would sit in the stands at CenturyLink Field like everyone else.
One day I need to be there, Nouhou thought. One day I need to be there as well.
Nouhou was not sure when that day would eventually come, but it came sooner than he had imagined. After playing 24 matches with S2 and leading the team in minutes, he landed on First Team Head Coach Brian Schmetzer’s radar. Schmetzer, General Manager & President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey and VP of Soccer & Sporting Director Chris Henderson are in constant communication with the S2 technical staff and are always evaluating prospective talent.
“It’s important that we continue to build up players through our developmental pipeline, and here is another good example of a young player who earned his opportunity to represent the First Team,” Lagerwey said when the club signed Nouhou in January 2017.
Nouhou knew the work was only just beginning. He knew he was playing behind one of the best left backs in Major League Soccer in Joevin Jones and that he’d have to wait his turn and earn his minutes. Nouhou didn’t appear in Seattle’s first 13 matches last season, but he finally made his debut as a substitute on May 31 at Columbus Crew SC. He took the beginning of the season as a chance to adjust to the speed of First Team trainings and soak up everything he could from Jones, who was instrumental in Nouhou’s rapid development.
“I learned a lot from Joevin on the field,” Nouhou said in French via a translation from Assistant Head Coach Djimi Traore. “With his advice, I knew I would improve, and I improved a lot.”
How Nouhou went from budding Cameroonian prospect to one of the best players under 20 in MLS in less than two years is as remarkable as it is surprising. He grew up in Douala, the soccer-crazed country’s largest city with a population of three million, some four hours west of the capital Yaoundé. He loved soccer, but it was difficult for his parents because they wanted him to focus on school. Nouhou would sometimes pretend to go to class, but would skip and play soccer instead.
“It’s only when I was 15 that my parents knew I wanted to do it very seriously because I was first called up to the national team Under-15s,” Nouhou said. “I knew it was my destiny to play soccer.”
Soccer is the main sport in Cameroon, and everyone plays in the street. Nouhou loved watching and supporting the national team, one which featured the likes of former Barcelona and Inter Milan star Samuel Eto’o.
Nouhou dreamed about plying his trade in Europe and representing his country at the senior level. But as a young player in Cameroon, it was challenging to get the international recognition required to earn a spot overseas. He waited for an opportunity to arise, and at last, while playing with the U-23 national team a couple years ago, the Sounders technical staff discovered him.
“I had a talk with [the Sounders staff] and we talked about coming to play in MLS and to come live in America,” Nouhou recalled. “That opened my eyes. For me, it was a decision to play soccer, yes, but financially, it was a good opportunity for me as well. Not to escape from Cameroon, but to go somewhere and discover a different culture.”
The culture shock in America was greater than he could have expected. His first year with S2 was the first time he lived abroad. He didn’t speak much English, and the language barrier made it especially difficult to transition. Fortunately, though, there were several other French speakers on S2’s roster, which helped alleviate some of the language problems and helped ease off-the-field stresses.
“[Fomer S2 players and Cameroon natives] Willy [Kapawa] and Mark [O’Ojong] were very helpful for me because they can speak English and they can make the translations for me,” Nouhou said. “My roommate is [French-speaker Jordy] Delem, and I like to live with him because we’ve become good friends and we share the same ambition. I know I need to break out and be more independent, that’s why I wanted to go and find my way in America.”
There was a plethora of other small adjustments he had to get used to, though, like the cold, rainy weather and the different playing surfaces of the fields.
“It was hard the first few months,” Nouhou reflected. “When I started to adapt with the help of [former S2 Head Coach] Ezra [Hendrickson] and his staff and Djimi, they helped me to develop as a soccer player but also off the field. I am very thankful for the help from the organization, from everyone in the club to make it feel like home. When I put my feet on the field, I try to give back to the club. It’s a big opportunity for me to come abroad and play in America, and I want to be successful.”
Traore has been a tremendous help for players like Nouhou, teenagers from abroad who join the Sounders organization thousands of miles away from home chasing a professional dream. Traore’s bilingualism is beneficial, as is his résumé. He won the 2005 UEFA Champions League title with Liverpool and spent 18 years as a professional. When he speaks, players listen.
“For me, my main job, it’s not only Nouhou,” Traore said. “All the players I work with, I try to treat them the same way, to give them my experience and my expertise as a coach because I’ve been in the same shoes as them. I grew up in the same way. I know what it takes to be a professional.
“Guys like Nouhou, when they come young and it’s their first experience as a pro, I try to give them the best advice,” he continued. “Of course, I will not always be right, but I try to guide them. I don’t want to do everything for them because they need to do some things for themselves. The best way to do it sometimes is to make mistakes. That’s where they’re going to learn the most. Us [as coaches] are just there to help them achieve what they want and to make them better players when they leave the club one day.”
Nouhou and Schmetzer have a good relationship too. Schmetzer is always trying to improve Nouhou, to make him more decisive in the final third, more timely with his runs, more technically sound as a 1-v-1 defender. At first, Nouhou felt intimidated when Schmetzer called him into his office to discuss his play. But now, Nouhou said, he understands what Schmetzer wants and what he’s trying to get out of him.
During Nouhou’s first start for the First Team last year against Orlando City SC at CenturyLink Field, he was nervous. He had come on as a substitute the previous three games and was finally getting his first chance to prove himself for 90 minutes. Schmetzer pulled him aside before the opening whistle and told him to play like he had been in training and everything would be fine.
“It built my confidence,” Nouhou said of Schmetzer’s encouragement. “From the first time I touched the ball that day, I knew what I needed to do.”
Nouhou has also become a fan favorite in his short time with the club. Fans have likened his exciting style of play to that of a high-speed train with the way he bolts up and down the left flank. The adoration was surprising to him at first, but he’s really embraced the comparison.
“In the beginning, I was laughing,” Nouhou said. “Now, I embrace the nickname, I love it. You can compare me to that because when I’m on the field, that’s how I’m feeling. I like to go fast.”
Nouhou is working on trying to become more of a professional off the field as well. He noted how different it is being a professional in the United States versus one in Cameroon when he was younger. There are a lot of small details a player has to manage on his own: taking care of his body, eating the right foods, going to bed on time and getting enough sleep.
“I’ve learned that here,” Nouhou said. “On the field, I’ve learned tricks and tried to be more professional. Sometimes, some players will provoke me, and [not responding] is something I need to improve. I think I’m doing much better now.”
Nouhou has lofty goals. Since joining the First Team, he’s had his first call-ups to the Cameroon Senior Team. He made his international debut last November, starting against Zambia in the final match of 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying. He understands how much work there is yet to be done, but he’s aiming high and is ready to work hard enough to get there.
“I’m very ambitious,” Nouhou said. “I want to go as far as I can. I will try everything I can to be an MLS champion, that is one of my objectives with the Sounders. And why not with the national team? To participate in the World Cup or win the World Cup and be one of the best left backs in the world.”