While it seems likely that Brad Smith will be the starter when the Seattle Sounders take the pitch to start the 2019 season Saturday, his place in the starting 11 should not be considered automatic. That was the message from Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer Tuesday when asked about the positional battle at left back.
“Nouhou came to training a little bit late,” Schmetzer said. “There were some visa issues that he had to address. That gave Brad a bit of a head start. The competition is real, it’s there. It’s not over. Brad might be the starter one week and then you might see Nouhou the next.”
Schmetzer may be understating Smith’s advantage in the two players’ current estimation by the coaching staff. On the whole, Smith has seemed the more polished product between the two players. Both possess impressive raw speed, but Smith has shown greater capability on the ball and a more mentally alert role in defense, while Nouhou has sometimes switched off leading to errors while tracking back.
Smith also seems to enjoy a greater chemistry with Victor Rodriguez on the left side. So well do the two combine in the attacking half that the Sounders have switched Kim Kee-hee to the left centerback role to provide greater cover for Smith when he ventures downfield.
On Nouhou’s side of the ledger, he’s generally established himself as the far superior 1v1 defender and was the starter for much of the Sounders’ stretch run. The Sounders went 11-0-3 in his final 14 starts of the regular season.
Nouhou’s late arrival at training camp was reportedly due to visa issues, but the Cameroonian youngster was also linked to a possible transfer to several Ligue 1 clubs in France, including the high-profile Olympic Marseille. It is unclear how seriously, if at all, Nouhou was pushing for a move, but several tweets made it seem like the 21-year-old was ready to try his hand in Europe. Whether or not this raised internal aggravation with the left back remains to be seen.
Still, Smith’s time in Seattle could be relatively short. His loan deal from Bournemouth is set to expire when the Premier League transfer window opens in August. It’s entirely possible the two sides could work out a loan extension or even a full transfer at that point, but it’s unclear how likely either scenario is. After Bournemouth purchased the Australian for $4.6 million from Liverpool in 2016, he would likely be outside of Seattle’s (and most MLS clubs’) markets for a left back if they insisted on anything like a full return on their investment.
Smith also has lingering injury concerns. A series of muscle pulls and tears have plagued the 24-year-old in the past few years, including the last five matches of the 2018 season and both playoff legs against Portland. While Schmetzer reaffirmed that Smith is fully fit (his removal from the friendly against San Jose was precautionary), Smith must show that he is capable of dealing with the physical strain of being a regular starter. Smith has not made more than 10 appearances in a season with a club since 2014-15 with Swindon Town in League One.
Drawbacks aside, the uncertainty is not a bad thing for the Sounders to have. Both Nouhou and Smith are capable of producing at the MLS level. The competition between the two should draw out the very best that either has to offer in the early phases of the season. With Smith potentially set to return to England however and Nouhou possibly eying a transfer himself, it is not clear what the Sounders aim to do at left back in the long term. There is no denying, though, that the short term looks bright.