When the whistle blew at Lumen Field on Friday night and opened the Seattle Sounders’ season, just three defenders stood in front of goalkeeper Stefan Frei.
Midfielder Josh Atencio, a 19-year-old kid from Bellevue, Washington, patrolled in front of them. Brad Smith and Alex Roldan positioned themselves at the touchline near midfield as wing backs. Jordan Morris was absent, as were Gustav Svensson (China), Kelvin Leerdam (Inter Miami), Joevin Jones (Inter Miami), and Harry Shipp (MBA program at Northwestern University).
If you didn’t know 2021 was a year of change for the Sounders beforehand, kickoff made it clearer than a summer sky in Seattle.
It’s been years since the Sounders started a season confronting so many vital questions. Winning breeds stability, and no team has won more than Seattle since it joined MLS in 2008. But age and finances and injury have brought change, and with it, questions. Can the Sounders score and defend and win from a new formation? Can they replace a slew of decorated veterans with a handful of teenagers? Can Nouhou play center back? Can Alex Roldan play wing back? Can the club overcome another devastating Jordan Morris injury?
It was only one match, but Friday night’s 4-0 shellacking of Minnesota United was the first chance to start sorting some answers. For a night, anyway, everything came up Sounders. The match provided story lines galore, but two of the more intriguing are Atencio and converted center back Nouhou.
He only started because team captain Nicolas Lodeiro missed the match with a thigh strain. That absence pulled Cristian Roldan into Lodeiro’s usual No. 10 spot and left a vacancy in front of the back line. But Atencio made the most of his opportunity.
Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer hinted all preseason that Atencio would surprise people once the games started. Head coaches overhyping young players every spring is as reliable as dandelions, but Atencio looked the part on Friday.
A Homegrown Player, Atencio played for the Sounders’ lauded youth teams that won three major trophies (for the nerds: the 2017-2018 U.S. Soccer Development Academy national championship and a pair of Generation Adidas Cups). He has caps with both the U-15 and U-17 U.S. youth national teams. At the club level, he spent 2018 and 2019 with the Sounders’ USL outfit. But last year COVID forced teams to maintain separate MLS and USL bubbles. While some of his fellow teenagers were relegated to the Tacoma Defiance, Atencio signed with the senior squad (as did Shandon Hopeau and Ethan Dobbelaere). He made only five appearances for just 11 minutes in 2020, and with training closed to the media, the 6-foot-1-inch midfielder developed under wraps for a year.
“We kept Josh purposely in the first team training environment,” Schmetzer said after Friday’s match, “and you guys witnessed his transformation into, I mean, he looked like a very, very talented MLS player.”
Playing alongside Designated Player Joao Paulo as a pair of dual No. 8s, Atencio looked at home from the start, particularly when defending. In the early going he snuffed out the danger after a bad Nouhou turnover, blocking an Ethan Finlay cross near the end line for a corner kick. In the waning moments of the first half he hounded Emanuel Reynoso — the visitors’ star midfielder and no slouch on the ball — for 10 yards, forcing the playmaker back into the Minnesota half of the field before taking the ball off his foot.
It’s a quality of play Schmetzer traces to Atencio’s development last summer.
“Young players will tell you,” he said last week, “that if you’re on the field every day with Nico, with Raul [Ruidiaz], with Cristian, with Gustav, you learn and you pick up things from some of the senior players. So I think a lot of his development happened last year. We couldn’t get him games down at Defiance, which was the one thing that we didn’t like. But so far, so good. He’s showed well in the training games we’ve had so far. He’s earned our consideration for playing time. So I think that’s a success story.”
Atencio grew into the match offensively, too. Just after halftime he went on a long winding run that began at the top of his 18-yard box and ended deep in the attacking third. It led directly to the Sounders’ first real look of the match, a short-range Brad Smith volley straight to the goalkeeper. There was finally blood in the water, thanks to the hometown teenager. The Sounders scored the first of four goals just three minutes later, and Atencio played a key role in that buildup as well.
“That kid had a really good game,” Schmetzer said. “Fantastic game.”
Nouhou, it turns out, remains an adventure wherever you put him. He debuted at left back in 2017 as a good defender needing to develop offensively. By the end of 2020 — four years and 91 appearances later — he was a fantastic defender needing to develop offensively. He delivered just four assists and no goals in nearly 6200 minutes of league play at fullback.
He was also in an on-again, off-again timeshare at left back with Brad Smith, the yin to Nouhou’s yang, an attacking speedster not given to lusty defending. Converting Nouhou to center back, the thinking went, would get both players on the field at the same while hiding their weaknesses and allowing each to focus on what he does best. It sounded brilliant, on paper.
“Nouhou’s looking really good in that position,” Cristian Roldan said before the match. “It suits him extremely well, especially when we’re in the attack, he can be a little more aggressive on the press. And also his recovery is the best on the team. His ability to recover the ball for us and play more defensive and let Brad do a lot of the work offensively, I think suits both of them to be honest. I expect Nouhou to have a big year, to play extremely well. He might have fewer goals or assists than he’s had, but I think he’s going to be a big, big part of our team because of his ability to recover balls for us.”
It’s just one match, but it seems like it could work. Defensively, Nouhou looked like an all-league center back. He intercepted pass after pass, calmly shepherded balls over the end line with defenders riding his back, made rugged challenges when needed. He has transformed himself in the last four years from a solid one-on-one defender to an excellent team defender. And the young man covers some territory.
“I told you guys,” said Schmetzer after the match, “that new formation is perfect for Nouhou.”
Well, almost perfect. In a month, a few opening-night blunders could be a forgotten hiccup, but Nouhou turned the ball over deep in his own territory in the fifth minute, and nearly did it again in the sixth. An errant pass near midfield sparked a Minnesota counter attack in the 14th minute, and barely 90 seconds later Romain Metanire stole the ball from him at the edge of the penalty box. Yet another midfield turnover just past the half-hour mark led to a dangerous Minnesota cross.
That’s the potential flaw in this plan: there’s not actually anywhere on the pitch to hide bad decisions on the ball. At worst, the Sounders have traded turnovers that killed counter attacks for turnovers in front of Stefan Frei.
It was Nouhou’s first match at center back, and he did settle down on the ball eventually — although Minnesota United’s press grew increasingly ragged and halfhearted as the match slipped away from them. It was also the first match of the season in a year with a drastically abbreviated preseason. And it was the Sounders’ first match in a new formation. That’s a lot of firsts. It was probably nothing.
But hiccups can sneak up on you after you think they’re gone. Don’t be surprised if opponents force Nouhou to prove his are a thing of the past.