Blaise Nkufo never seemed to fully embrace his roll as a target forward in Seattle Sounders coach Sigi Schmid's offensive system. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
No one can fault the Seattle Sounders for being shy when it comes to signing Designated Players. In just their third year of MLS existence, they have already signed four DPs, more than any other team.
That two of them have ended in rather spectacular fashion, most recently Blaise Nkufo's departure being announced just hours before First Kick, you could be excused for thinking the Sounders may be getting a little gun shy. In talking the GM Adrian Hanauer, though, nothing seems to be further from the truth. Hanauer didn't exactly guarantee that the team would sign another DP this year, but he gave clear indications that it is a very real possibility.
"It’s for sure not out of the question," Hanauer said about signing a DP sooner rather than later. "That's part of this equation: cap relief, roster relief and a designated player slot.
"Obviously Sigi, I and Chris (Henderson) are all talking about how we win a championship. We need to beat LA to win a championship. Can we beat LA on a given day? Sure, I think so, but we need to consistently beat LA to win a championship and need to keep talking about how we get there. It’s probably not going to be done by adding minimum salary players.
"When you look at (David) Beckham and (Landon) Donovan, that’s $8 million worth of players, their payroll is probably three times of what ours is and to some degreee you get what you pay for. We need to figure it out and get better."
Rather than being discouraged by the way the Freddie Ljungerg and Nkufo signings ultimately turned out, Hanauer sees them as just part of the business. An unfortunate part, to be sure, but not one that is particularly surprising.
"For sure we’ve learned," Hanauer said. "I can’t guarantee that we won’t make mistakes as we move forward. But I’m a big believer that in the case of a team or a business that has all these overlopping and interlocking parts, that action over inaction is typically better. My bias is to action, not inaction.
"We probably could have mutually agreed to keep going with status quo, but in both cases (Ljungberg and Nkufo) I think making a decision whether popular, well-timed or financially beneficial, as long as it’s the right long-term decision it's what we are going to try to do."
Hanauer did acknowledge that the timing of the Nkufo announcement was unfortunate. He did not get into many details about how, exactly, the situation went down, but he again reiterated that there was not an "incident" that preempted the decision.
Rather it was a long-simmering displeasure that essentially came to a head after the Community Shield match against the Colorado Rapids when Nkufo asked to talk to coach Sigi Schmid. It's not exactly clear what was said during that conversation, but we know it ended with the two sides agreeing to go their separate ways. That basically left the Sounders one option: cutting ties with him just days before First Kick.
"That’s the problem, today it couldn’t have happened," Hanauer said the day after the game. "Blaise would be on our books all year, unless we could trade him, which it didn’t seem very likely that we could do. No one wanted his budget number."
Signs that all was not well between the Sounders and Nkufo first started to show when he was left unprotected in the Expansion Draft. It wasn't a shocking decision, as several Designated Players were left exposed, but it was perhaps telling that the Vancouver Whitecaps passed on the chance to select him since they would've been given the opportunity to renegotiate his contract.
Later in the off-season, Nkufo was quoted in a Dutch website saying that playing in MLS was "not about football," but rather about a certain lifestyle. While those statements could be overlooked, in hindsight they seem more telling. Little signs like that slowly built up over the course of the off-season. Nkufo had nagging injuries early in camp that seemed to indicate he was not in the best shape. During the game against the Portland Timbers, Nkufo was coming as far back as the "D" to receive passes, something Schmid alluded to as being problematic after the Rapids match when he said "The forwards did a good job tonight of staying high. It's maybe sometimes frustrating when you stay high because you feel you don't see enough of the ball." At least one story has claimed that kind of strategic difference played a significant roll in Nkufo's displeasure.
The other even that coincided with the situation coming to a head was Vancouver's signing of Eric Hassli, in some ways a younger, but less accomplished version of Nkufo. That Hassli's signing and Nkufo's decision to finally talk to Schmid came within a week of each other doesn't seem to be a total coincidence. Nkufo, whose family lives in Vancouver, very well could have been hoping the Whitecaps would eventually see value in acquiring his services. That was obviously not happening after the Hassli signing, and the Whitecaps have been reported as having no interest in Nkufo.
That decision essentially gives the Sounders until April 15 to find someone that can help immediately, as that is the date the MLS transfer window closes. The window does not open again until July 15, which would mean about half of the season would have already passed.
Hanauer did not say what kind of player the Sounders are looking for, but there's no reason to believe that they would restrict themselves to a forward, especially considering there's still a very good chance that Nate Jaqua could ultimately be that player. Whatever happens from here, we can at least be assured that Hanauer does not intend to sit on his hands.