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Nico Benezet is feeling right at home in Seattle

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There’s plenty of quality play beyond the impressive memes.

Mike Fiechtner / Sounders FC Communications

When Nicolas Benezet was first acquired by the Seattle Sounders, he had several days to kill while going through the league-mandated quarantine period. Most of that time was spent watching anime and consuming other media. But he also found time to visit Golden Gardens, the sandy Ballard-area beach that offers breathtaking views of the Olympic Peninsula.

He was smitten.

Even before he had trained with the Sounders or met his new teammates, Benezet was already feeling as though he was somewhere he belonged. He had even changed his social-media avatar to an anime character wearing a Sounders jersey.

Although Seattle’s beach season is now well into the rear-view mirror, Benezet’s initial feelings about his new home have only been cemented.

“I love Seattle,” the Frenchman said on Wednesday, showing off his near-perfect English. “It’s a good city.”

The feeling is quickly becoming mutual. Benezet made his Sounders debut in particularly impressive fashion, scoring a goal just seven minutes after entering the game against the Portland Timbers. He celebrated the goal by striking a pose from one of his favorite animes, One Piece.

It was an introduction that proved fitting. Over the last two months, Benezet has cemented a spot in the Sounders’ rotation with solid offensive output, willingly defending and proving himself capable of contributing as both a starter and a reserve. It was Benezet’s defensive pressure that created the turnover that led to the Sounders’ late winner in Columbus, he showed off some playmaking on his assist to João Paulo in the win over Minnesota, and he displayed a goal-scorer’s touch on what turned out to be the game-winner against the Whitecaps.

He followed up that goal with another memorable celebration, this one inspired by a friend who dared him to mimic something he’d spotted on the internet. The celebration involved him grabbing his hamstring in mock pain and then breaking into dance. Pictures can probably better explain:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Benezet has also established himself as a social-media darling. In addition to creating easily shareable content, he casually pops up in mentions, shares memes and stans for teammates. It’s a level of social-media comfort — and vulnerability — rarely shown by athletes.

All of this from a player who was having a hard time just getting on the field over the last two years. Benezet first came to MLS from Ligue 1 in 2019 — even helping Toronto FC reach MLS Cup — but was dealt to the Rapids ahead of the 2020 season. Despite the Rapids paying Benezet’s transfer fee as part of the deal, he never found a regular spot in Robin Fraser’s rotation.

The Sounders got Benezet from the Rapids — who are picking up most of his salary — at the transfer deadline in exchange for just $50,000 in allocation money. In most of two seasons with the Rapids, Benezet played less than 800 minutes and had just two assists. He’s already topped that output with the Sounders — 3 goals and 1 assist in all competitions — in about half as many minutes.

“He’s been very good since he came here,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said about Benezet. “He’s a smart soccer player. He knows where to play. He’s technical, he’s clean; getting goal-scoring from that position has been key for us.”

Benezet’s play has gained him the confidence of the coaching staff, who seem to have finally found several secondary scorers beyond Raúl Ruidíaz. But Benezet is also clearly endearing himself to his new teammates. Beyond having several French-speakers on the team, Benezet can often be found deep in social-media mentions bantering with teammates on everything from ping-pong to hairstyles.

Soccer players often speak about wanting to be able to “express” themselves on the field, and Benezet seems to be a real-world example of how much difference a player’s headspace can make.

“The thing is I was mad when I was in Denver,” Benezet said. “I was not enjoying my time when I was over there. I needed to move. I think Seattle was a better place to be, to be able to play my football and be free. I feel free when I’m doing the celebrations, when I’m doing some [shit-posting] on Twitter. I feel like I’m free and that’s all I want.”