There’s no question outside backs are vital to the Seattle Sounders attack under Brian Schmetzer. In fact, when asked what the team looked to do offensively in the week leading up to the Montreal Impact match, the coach outlined in clear terms, “We need to be true to ourselves. Our team is built around midfielders pinching in and outside backs getting involved.”
With the Seattle Sounders starting 2018 without their top two outside backs from 2017 — Joevin Jones and Kelvin Leerdam — perhaps their slow start was inevitable. Whereas Leerdam is returning to fitness and form (red card not withstanding) after a training accident, the gap in production left by Jones’ departure to Darmstardt 98 remains unfilled. While the Sounders entered the season with strong depth in the position between Nouhou, who started every playoff game besides the championship, and Waylon Francis, who was an MLS All-Star in 2015, neither player has found the form necessary to replace Jones, provider of 14 total assists between 2016 and 2017.
In 2018, the battle to replace Jones rages on, with Nouhou and Francis having alternated as the starter for each match thus far. A deep look into each player’s history as well as their current form may shed light on who has the edge moving forward.
Nouhou: Given the strong finish to his 2017 campaign, many were surprised that Nouhou would need to compete for a starting spot at all this year. After all, in just two years with the Sounders organization, the Cameroonian left back went from under the radar S2 signing, to leader in S2 minutes played, to first team signing, to starting left back for the Western Conference champions. And, while he didn’t get the nod to start against Toronto in the final, the team’s performance in that match was so poor that his stock may have actually risen by virtue of not having played most of it.
However, changes in personnel from 2017 to 2018 have caused Nouhou’s role to shift despite playing the same position. Of Nouhou’s 14 starts last year, Jones started as the left mid in front of him 10 times. In those 10 matches the Sounders went 6-1-3, averaging 2.1 points a match. Of the four matches with a right footed player in front of Nouhou (two with Victor Rodriguez, two with Jordan Morris), the Sounders went 0-1-3, averaging .75 points per match.
What separates Jones from Rodriguez and Morris is that Jones can provide good left footed services from the left wing, relieving Nouhou of that offensive responsibility. When Nouhou is expected to provide the bulk of the crossing service from the left, the team has struggled. In fact, the Sounders have yet to win an MLS game with anybody but Jones starting ahead of him. With Jones gone, and no left footed wingers to replace him, Nouhou will need to evolve his game if he hopes to get back on track.
Francis: There are two versions of Waylon Francis in MLS. The first is an all-star caliber player who provided 13 assists in his first two seasons - leading the league in assists by a defender in both years - with the Columbus Crew and helped lead his team to the 2015 MLS Cup final. With an uncanny ability to get forward and provide good service, this version of Francis was the Joevin Jones of MLS before Jones’ career took off in Seattle.
During this time, Francis actually crossed the ball more often and more accurately than Jones did in his 2016-2017 run with the Sounders. According to Whoscored, between 2014 and 2015 Francis completed 1.25 crosses per game and attempted 4.65 crosses total. By comparison, Jones completed .55 crosses per game and attempted 3.85 total between 2016 and 2017.
Unfortunately, 2016 saw Francis’s performance dip, and he lost his starting spot to Corey Ashe before a shoulder surgery ended his season prematurely. In 2017, Francis began the year behind new Columbus signing Jukka Raitala, and was never able to earn his starting spot back. Francis’ regression might make more sense if Columbus had undergone a major change in coaching, personnel, or formation, but in each of his four years with the Crew, he was coached by Gregg Berhalter, played primarily in a 4-2-3-1, and had Justin Meram starting in front of him on the left wing.
Besides his shoulder surgery, there are no key indicators that might explain why Francis’s performance dipped as much as it did. While he still managed to notch 2.5 assists per season in 2016 and 2017 despite playing nearly half as much, his number of key passes, successful crosses, successful dribbles, and tackles per match all dropped. This dip in activity may point to a loss of confidence, but then again trying to find a player’s psyche through stats is a bit of a fool’s errand.
Francis has proven he has the ability to be a like-for-like replacement for Jones, but in a “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” business, his performances from over two years ago don’t count for much.
Nouhou: The Sounders have one win and two losses in Nouhou’s two starts this year. The moderately good news is that the team has a net 0 goal differential in those matches. The bad news is his only win has come at home against sub par competition. The further bad news is that all four of the Sounders goals from that Santa Tecla match came after the team made a clear choice to remove Nouhou from their offensive game plan in 2nd half. In the final 45 minutes of that match, Nouhou only made three passes in the attacking half and none in the attacking third; he had made 16 passes in the attacking half and five passes in the attacking third in the first 45 minutes. In other words, the offense became more potent without him in it.
While 45 minutes may not be enough time to take over the game moving forward as an outside back, Nouhou would get a second massive chance to prove his ability in that area against LAFC. In that match he started once more beneath Harry Shipp, who creates space for outside backs to go forward as well as anybody. Accordingly, Nouhou got off 35 passes and six crosses in LAFC’s half. The Sounders still didn’t score. While missing the aerial threats of Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris didn’t help Nouhou, neither did getting two crosses blocked and hitting one short of the penalty box. Though the Cameroonian defender did get off a great shot in the 13th minute, it wasn’t enough to make up for his poor service from the match.
Defensively, Nouhou has been his usual active self. He leads Francis in per-match statistics in successful tackles (1.7 to 1), interceptions (3.7 to 2), and recoveries (5.3 to 3.5). His penchant for recoveries is particularly impressive, as Francis, Leerdam, and Jordan McCrary have all failed to tally more than five in any single match. Moreover, Nouhou has won multiple tackles high up the pitch over his first three games, showing great effectiveness in pressing when necessary. All of these stats predictably point to a player with outstanding energy and athleticism who is capable of smothering attackers on his side of the field.
Still, Nouhou’s youthful exuberance can get the best of him. His overly ambitious angle against Michael Barrios of FC Dallas cost the Sounders the opening goal of the match. While mistakes happen, a player with Nouhou’s pace should rarely - if ever - get beat for speed down the wing. With his offensive output lagging thus far into the season, he needs to eliminate mental errors in order to show his defensive upside is high enough to win him the starting job.
Francis: Francis’ season with the Sounders got off to an inauspicious start as he failed to register a single cross, dribble, or key pass despite pushing high into the attack frequently.
Since then, the Costa Rican veteran has been the Sounders most consistently dangerous fullback going forward. Francis registered an outstanding four key passes against Chivas in leg one, created a few of the only Sounders attacking moments against Chivas in leg two, and added two more key passes against Montreal. Even with his poor first outing against Santa Tecla, he’s currently outpacing each of Jones and Leerdam’s 2017 for key passes per match.
But, as good as Francis has been going forward, he’s looked shaky in the back. Chivas in particular looked to repeatedly exploit him 1-v-1 in the second leg, getting off nine crosses and winning three free kicks down his flank. In fairness, the Sounders midfield failed to slow down Chivas’s constant switches to their right flank, which forced him into a lot of one v. one defending in space—any defender’s nightmare. Francis struggled, but almost looked capable of an epic bend-but-don’t-break performance until questionable tracking and a lost challenge led to Chivas’s second and third goals respectively.
Perhaps more frustrating than Francis’s late game performance against Chivas was his give-away that led to Montreal’s game winner. While Nico Lodeiro did Francisno favors providing a challenging back pass to handle (and then appears to incorrectly motion for Francis to slow play down), the defender must know to clear the ball in that situation. Given the Sounders were a man down, they could ill afford to get caught in possession in the back. Francis’s mistake was all the more frustrating for how well he had played up to that point in the match.
Francis has shown he’s capable of providing a spark going forward, and Nouhou still has the ability to overwhelm opposing attackers, but both have made key errors that belie their overall abilities. Right now, the lack of a left-footed winger and the team’s overall offensive lethargy may give Francis and his attacking prowess the upper hand.
That said, Nouhou might simply need more opportunities to refine his offensive game. An investment in his development now could lead to more trophies down the road, plus a potential windfall in money for the club if he strikes a big-time European transfer. A third option still is to keep Nouhou more at home as a defender and give one of the team’s holding mids more license to go forward, as the Sounders did with Lodeiro in the second half against Santa Tecla.
Then again, maybe it’s not that complicated. Maybe the first left back to log a mistake-free 90 minutes of MLS play gets the job.