There were a few notable absences when the Seattle Sounders started preseason, with some players navigating injuries and others jumping through some of the hoops required of international players. In the cases of Josh Atencio and Nouhou, their absence from the fields at Starfire were due to national team duty.
Atencio spent much of the first part of January in camp with the USMNT as part of a cohort of domestic players, many of whom are vying for a place in the squad when the US men’s team takes part in the Olympics this Summer in Paris. The culmination of that camp was a friendly in San Antonio, Texas against Slovenia, in which Atencio started and played 61 minutes as he earned his first full national team cap.
Atencio wasn’t the best player on the field during his hour in the US’s 1-0 loss to Slovenia, but he was a consistent and steady presence in midfield. Deployed as something of an 8 in a midfield trio with little in the way of clearly defined roles, Atencio popped up at times as either the deepest or most advanced of the midfielders depending on what the game required. He completed 44 of 48 attempted passes as Gregg Berhalter’s side favored a methodical possession-focused approach, while also showing a strong understanding for when the game calls for a different tact.
That was particularly on display around the 17th minute when he spotted DeJuan Jones running down the left and released him in behind with a first-time ball from the center of the pitch.
Atencio later helped generate one of the US’s best chances as he played another one-touch pass to Diego Luna that put the attacker into space between Slovenia’s midfield and defensive lines with runners ahead of him. Luna picked out a pass for Shaq Moore who opted for a shot that was managed by the Slovenian goalkeeper, but the play was as dangerous as it was because of Atencio’s reading of the game. Throughout his time on the pitch Atencio was a willing runner, often getting into dangerous positions on one end and limiting danger at the other.
Atencio didn’t jump out of the screen to grab your attention in this game, but in fairness not many players from the US side did that. Instead this was another data point in a growing set of data that says he’s a very, very good midfield who can be relied on. Now he returns to the Sounders where he’ll continue to make his case for a place in the Olympic squad as a starter in the middle of the field for one of MLS’s premier teams.
Across the Atlantic Ocean in the Ivory Coast, Nouhou and Cameroon are competing in the Africa Cup of Nations. Currently sitting in third place in Group C with one point after their first two games, Nouhou and his teammates are faced with a potential early end to their time at the tournament. Nouhou was an unused substitute in Cameroon’s opening 1-1 draw against Guinea, but started and played all 90 minutes as his side fell 3-1 to Senegal in their second game.
Nouhou had some good moments, to be sure. Among his highlights was a well-timed but decidedly risky slide tackle in the penalty area that turned a dangerous moment into a corner. That said, it was a bad day out for all of Cameroon’s defensive players. Andre Onana made a mess on the opening goal as he came out to deal with a cross, and every player who got involved from that point on made the mess even worse before Ismaila Sarr eventually slotted the ball into the net. Nouhou had about as little responsibility for the opening goal as possible, but a fair share of the blame for the second belongs to him. He was particularly casual as he stepped to Sarr on the left side of the box, failing to move quickly enough to put any real pressure on the attacker before he played in a low cross. Just as much blame falls on the shoulders of the other defenders, though, who allowed Habibiou Mouhamadou Diallo to ghost in completely unmarked at the back post to finish the play.
Cameroon and Nouhou now face The Gambia tomorrow morning with their AFCON lives on the line. Second place could be theirs if they win and Guinea lose to Senegal in a way that the combined scores erase a three-goal deficit for Cameroon, but a potential spot in the knockout round as a third-place finisher is also up for grabs. Regardless, a win is almost certainly a necessity if they want to keep playing.