That sort of crashing sound you heard was the international window slamming shut. Following the end of the first round of MLS Playoff games, the league and much of men’s football around the world took a break for the November international window.
The timing of this particular window is less than ideal for MLS, as for a second time in as many months the momentum built up by the league is largely thrown off by a break in play. Teams try to stay sharp in training while also hoping and praying that any players they may send off to their national teams don’t come back too worn down – or much worse: injured. Now as a Western Conference semifinal against LAFC looms on the weekend the Seattle Sounders are welcoming their international players back to training.
Seattle only sent three players off to join various national teams during this window – one of whom is unlikely to feature regardless – while the weekend’s opponents had twice as many represent their countries. So how did they all do, and how might this window have impacted each team? Let’s find out together.
Stuart Hawkins (USYNT U-17s) – We’ll start with the Sounders player who’s least likely to feature on Sunday. Stuart Hawkins signed his First Team contract just ahead of his 17th birthday, in no small part due to his role with the US on their run to qualifying for the U17 World Cup and his almost guaranteed call-up for that tournament. So it was no surprise when he jetted off to Indonesia with the US to compete in Group E against Burkina Faso, France, and South Korea. Hawkins featured in all three group games, starting the second and third games against Burkina Faso and France. After a 3-0 loss in the final group game against France the US booked a date against Germany in the Round of 16. Hawkins once again got the start and played 86 minutes, coming out of the game with the score tied 2-2. The US went on to give up the winning goal to Germany a minute later as they fell 3-2.
Nouhou (Cameroon) – Nouhou will end up having traveled over 15,000 miles in the course of this window, first going from Seattle to Douala, Cameroon and then on to Benghazi, Libya to help Cameroon in their World Cup Qualifying matches against Mauritius and Libya. He started on the bench in a 3-0 win against Mauritius before subbing into the game in the 82nd minute with the game already locked up. In the following game, Nouhou stayed on the bench throughout the entirety of a 1-1 draw in Benghazi. After the first two games of qualifying Cameroon sit at the top of Group D in CAF, tied on points with Cape Verde. It’s unclear if Nouhou’s status in the Cameroon squad has slipped or if this window is just an example of manager Rigobert Song testing his options while his team is the heavy favorite in their qualifying group. Regardless, it’s a lot of frequent flyer miles to rack up for just 8 minutes on the field. On the bright side, Nouhou should return to Seattle rested and motivated to show his national team coach that he can be relied on to play lock-down defense.
Josh Atencio (USMNT Olympic Squad) – Josh Atencio’s selection for a pair of friendlies with the US men’s Olympic squad against Iraq and Morocco was something of a surprise, but a well-earned opportunity given his play over recent weeks and months. Sadly a stomach bug deprived him of the chance to showcase his abilities, and he was unable to feature in either match as the US drew Iraq 1-1 and lost 1-0 to Morocco. With any luck, we’ll all just have to settle for Atencio continue to put on a show in Rave Green.
Dénis Bouanga (Gabon) – Dénis Bouanga just keeps rolling, scoring twice and playing 180 minutes across Gabon’s two WCQ matches against Kenya and Burundi. His goal tied the game against Kenya, and he scored the winner against Burundi when he capitalized on a serious error by Burundi’s goalkeeper and placed the ball in the back of the net from 45 yards out. Same as it ever was, I suppose. Gabon sit in second in Group F behind Ivory Coast on goal differential. Bouanga returns full of confidence and in form, and even if he were tired he’s not missing this game if he can still stand.
Denil Maldonado (Honduras) – Denil Maldonado has 19 starts in 21 appearances in MLS for LAFC this season but hasn’t started for the club in two months, last appearing when he played 90 minutes in the side’s 0-0 draw against the Philadelphia Union. That’s probably to the club’s benefit as he’s returning to LAFC coming off of what was almost certainly the most emotional pair of games of any of the internationals from the two teams. First he played all 90 minutes in Honduras’s 2-0 win in their home leg of the CONCACAF Nations League A Championship Quarter-final against Mexico. He started in the return leg and played 115 minutes as Honduras lost in a brutal penalty shootout after giving absolutely everything in their attempt to get beyond El Tri. Maldonado’s evening ended when he was shown his second yellow card, both of which were given during extra time. A win and advancement would have also meant qualification for next Summer’s Copa America.
Cristian Olivera (Uruguay) – Cristian Olivera joined Marcelo Bielsa's Argentina squad for CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying as they took on Argentina and Bolivia. He was on the bench for the team’s 2-0 road win over Leo Messi and Argentina, but played 87 minutes as Uruguay followed that performance up with a 3-0 win over Bolivia in Montevideo, Uruguay. Olivera isn’t exactly filling up the score sheet, but there’s definitely a reason that Bielsa and Carlos Bocanegra are both picking the 21 year-0ld. Uruguay are currently second behind Argentina in WC Qualifying with 13 points through six games.
Filip Krastev (Bulgaria) – Filip Krastev joined Bulgaria for a pair of Euro qualifiers against Hungary and Serbia, both of which ended 2-2. Krastev played all 90 minutes of the first game, a home meeting with Hungary in Sofia, Bulgaria that was played without fans following protests and a clash between Bulgarian supporters and police. The game featured a red for a second yellow for each team on either side of half-time. In the match against Serbia, played in Leskovac at the Graski Stadion Dubocica, Krastev played 77 minutes as he put in a very strong performance highlighted by an assist on a 69th minute that gave Bulgaria a lead at the time. Krastev isn’t quite a regular contributor for LAFC - he has nine appearances for a total of 149 minutes since joining in July, and didn’t appear in either games of the series against the Vancouver Whitecaps - but clearly has the ability to impact a game when he does see the field.
Stipe Biuk (Croatia U-21s) – Stipe Biuk joined the Croatia U-21s for a U21 Euros qualifying game against Belarus, played in Armenia on Monday. Biuk played 66 minutes in Croatia’s 1-0 win, leaving the game before Belarus went down to 10 players on the field due to a second yellow card in the 73rd minute and Croatia’s winner 10 minutes later. The result leaves Croatia undefeated in qualifying with a record of 3-0-1, but sitting third in their group and outside of the possible qualifying spots behind Portugal in first and Greece in second.
Maxime Crépeau (Canada) – Maxime Crépeau was on the bench for both of Canada’s games against Jamaica. The first was a 2-1 Canada win in Kingston, Jamaica that was significantly delayed to rain. Jamaica had their revenge in the return leg, claiming a 3-2 win thanks to three second-half goals.
Aside from any potential lingering effects from Josh Atencio’s stomach bug, none of the players who traveled for either side is likely to be suffering physically from their experience. There were some long travel days, but with the last of the games played on Tuesday everyone should be back in time to get a couple of days of training in ahead of the game on Sunday.
The real challenge will be in how some players respond emotionally to the challenges they may have faced. An international break can be an inflection point for the players involved, but it’s up to them to determine which way things break. One way or another we’ll all find out together.