As a conduit between Sounders Academy and Sounders FC First Team, S2 is often described as a system for developing local players from the youth ranks. And while this is largely true, the past three seasons have seen a new pipeline emerge under-the-radar players from West Africa.
The most prominent example of this pathway between the two continents is First Team left-back Nouhou. At just 18-years-old, the Cameroonian international made the trek across the world and landed in Seattle, signing a contract with S2. After starring in his inaugural USL campaign, the young prospect inked a First Team contract in the offseason, making him the first player to complete the club’s pathway from the Cameroonian First Division to Major League Soccer.
For the Sounders organization, Nouhou’s rapid ascent confirmed their belief that there are plenty of talented players in Africa who can thrive in the American system if given the opportunity.
“We know there are markets in the world that in the past have been under-scouted, like Central and North Africa,” S2 Assistant Coach Wade Webber said. “These countries have sent teams to the World Cup and have players all over the world, but there are still so many prospects out there that have the potential to be first team players and internationals for their country.”
Nouhou’s success with Sounders FC has blazed a trail for other African players to follow in his footsteps, with many of them coming from the same club, Rainbow FC. This strategic partnership led to the signings of two current prospects on S2, center-back Rodrigue Ele and striker Felix Chenkam.
In the past three years, a total of six players have followed the pathway carved by Nouhou from Rainbow FC to S2, while leftback Ibrahim Usman was recommended to the club by a scout in Nigeria.
“The Rainbow group have done a really good job of identifying guys who have the potential to develop on the professional side,” Webber added. “They’re all good players, good athletes, who have the physical profile we want.”
Since soccer is a global sport, there simply aren’t enough resources for every club to make accurate, detailed assessments of potential signings. As a result, a lot of player identification is outsourced, as clubs rely on contacts around the planet to notify them of interesting prospects. Soccer agent Leo Cullen, a teammate of Webber’s and Sounders FC GM Garth Lagerwey at the Miami Fusion, helped broker the partnership between Rainbow FC and the Sounders.
While their quality on the pitch is undeniable, the organization feels that their character and work ethic is what makes the players signed to S2 from Africa such an excellent fit with the Sounders. Sounders FC Director of Player Development and Academy Director Marc Nicholls had a few words about the boys.
“I think that the guys that have come from Africa add a lot of value to the Organization. They are from very humble beginnings and have a real, genuine Appreciation for the opportunities to play for the club. They remind us that soccer is a world game with people from all walks of life, and it’s something we shouldn’t take for granted.”
Making the transition from playing club soccer in Africa to the professional ranks in America is determined by more than just one’s ability. There’s adjusting to a new culture, new language, and an entirely different tactical setup to the one they’re used to.
For the Sounders, this means that players are evaluated along a two-year trajectory, with the first focusing on acclimation and the second on showing ones quality.
Since players can’t focus on developing on the pitch while overhauling their life off it, the club provides as many resources as possible to these players.
Two times a week, the club brings in an English-language tutor for all of the players signed from abroad. To make sure they receive proper nutrition, they set up all the players with an app that shows images of meals they should eat, with easy to follow instructions on how to to prepare it. And for players like Usman, who is taking classes at Highline Community College, Sounders Academy Director of Education and Welfare Diane Carney provides tutoring and assists them with their school work.
While there have been several success stories, the club is always looking to improve its process, giving these talented players from around the world the best opportunities to succeed.
“We do all we can to create an environment at Starfire to help them grow and adjust,” Webber said. “ We’re doing a lot of teaching, and that’s the S2 way. Everything we do is with an eye to how we can do it better. And that includes the process by which we bring in these guys from overseas, we always want to see how we can improve it.”
The club continues to refine the pathway from West Africa to the Sounders organization. But with S2, fans in Tacoma will get ample opportunities to get a first glimpse of the next Nouhou.