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Sounder at Heart Young Player of the Year: Nouhou

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The Nouhou Choochoo has pulled into the station.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

The 2020 season wasn’t kind to young players in the Seattle Sounders system. Due to COVID-19 both the MLS and USL seasons were compressed, and players weren’t able to move between the Sounders and Tacoma Defiance — and the Academy, for that matter — with the same ease as other seasons. As a result, minutes were more difficult to come by for the younger players on the Sounders roster, especially as the team pushed for silverware.

In light of those circumstances, it makes sense that Nouhou drew 71.6% of the vote for Young Player of the Year. Alec Diaz came in second in the voting, with 12.5%, on the strength of his 5 goal, 1 assist season as the primary striker for Tacoma Defiance. Meanwhile, 17-year-old Ray Serrano was named The Defiant by Dave Clark in honor of his impressive season.

Nouhou is, to put it lightly, a divisive player. In 2020, though, he was Brian Schmetzer’s first-choice at the left back spot, whether you liked it or not. That was most clear during the post-season in which the 23-year-old started all four games as the Sounders played their way to yet another MLS Cup final.

Even in a shortened season, Nouhou made 20 starts in 26 appearances between the regular season and post-season, playing a total of 1,695 minutes. Nouhou was one of only four players to appear in every MLS game for the Sounders in 2020, joining Stefan Frei, Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan.

Nouhou wasn’t just on the field, or being handed starts as a charitable gesture. His defensive ability and contributions are apparent, regardless of your opinion of the player. During the regular season he was easily in the top-5 on the Sounders roster in terms of defensive actions per 90 minutes. Excluding Jimmy Medranda, who only played 14 minutes for the Sounders during the regular season, Nouhou was behind only João Paulo averaging 4.29 tackles + interceptions per 90, with a 50% tackle success rate and a 58.8% success rate when tackling dribblers (behind only Medranda and Brad Smith, both of whom played too little during the regular season to reasonably extrapolate). Nouhou was an absolute menace for opposing attacks, routinely breaking up attacks and regaining possession for Seattle.

Playing strong defense isn’t enough for a fullback in the Sounders system, where the fullbacks are expected to be significant contributors in possession and attack. This particular area is one in which Nouhou often gets dinged, primarily for his decision making in the final third which can be absolutely infuriating when he opts to forego a pass to a teammate in search of his elusive first MLS goal. The reality, though, is that Nouhou is a solid passer averaging 84.7% completion on 55 attempts/90. His 70% long passing — passes over 30 yards — is what kept that number from being higher in 2020 while averaging 92.7% on short passes and 85% on medium passes. To compliment that, down the stretch he even added a better cross-field ball to his toolbox — an important addition as the team coped without Gustav Svensson’s ability to switch play.

Nouhou turned 23 in June, making him eligible for this award, and is moving into the peak of his physical abilities and the prime of his career. This is actually the second time he’s won it, becoming the third player to twice win Sounder at Heart’s Young Player of the Year. He’s just wrapped up his fourth season with the Sounders first team, and the club could certainly do worse than him as the starting left back of the future.

Still, Nouhou’s decision-making can lead one to wicked thoughts, whether he’s rifling a shot over the bar or making an unnecessarily complicated headed pass to himself that eventually leads to a Carlos Vela penalty kick, and there’s a sort of perpetual sense that Brian Schmetzer isn’t exactly getting everything he wants from the Cameroonian left back. If the club wants to move on from Nouhou, they’d probably be best served to cash in on what growth potential still remains. If they choose to keep him around for the long-haul, though, you’d better buy your ticket and strap yourself in, because the Nouhou Choochoo is a rollercoaster.