Seattle Sounders forward Blaise Nkufo wasn’t happy following the final preseason match against Colorado Rapids that the Sounders won 3-1. He later met with Coach Sigi Schmid and told him how he felt. The two discussed how he could fit into the current squad. It’s safe to say the two men agreed to disagree.
“It was just a mutual decision that it was probably good to move on at this stage, that it wasn’t working in terms of his situation, our situation, but it was very mutual,” Schmid said, following the 1-0 loss to the Galaxy.
The calendar bumped up against Nkufo and the Sounders’ front office in separate but telling ways.
The first of two questions was whether Nkufo’s 35-year-old body could handle the physical demands of a physical league. The Swiss marksman had slowed. His preseason was plagued by minor injuries.
The second question was whether he wanted to fill the role the Sounders wanted him to play at the end of his career.
Finally, there was the Major League Soccer deadline for designated players — if Nkufo stepped onto the turf for the First Kick, rules required the Sounders to guarantee his $480,000 salary for the season.
Overshadowing all of this was the sense of urgency the Sounders created from the beginning of preseason. This was the year, Schmid told the players, that the team had to make a deep run into the playoffs — or they would have to consider breaking up the core players at the end of the season.
As owner and general manager Adrian Hanauer put it: “We want to win the championship.”
With the clock ticking, the Sounders faced a dilemma. Could Nkufo, who had helped the team in the second half of its late-season run last year, be the impact player the team needed to win the MLS Cup? Or could they find a stronger, younger alternative — a proven goal scorer to fill the forward line, who also fit into Schmid’s system of play? They had to decide Tuesday, or both parties risked being unhappy in October.
So the Sounders agreed to re-negotiate the terms of Nkufo’s contract and the former Swiss national team forward — who led his Dutch first-division team FC Twente in scoring for several years — agreed to exit. Efforts to reach Nkufo for comment were unsuccessful.
Thus came the sudden press release less than an hour before kickoff, announcing Nkufo’s abrupt, unexpected departure. Similar circumstances occurred last season in the dramatic build-up to the release of the temperamental Freddie Ljungberg — Seattle’s first and most high-profile designated player.
“Certainly the irony isn’t lost on me that Ljungberg went out last year,” Hanauer said, explaining the decision to media following the Galaxy match. “Blaise came in. We went on a run, did very well. Blaise is on his way out.”
But the similarities end there.
Ljungberg, a star for English powerhouse Arsenal, was prickly and arrogant and created unrest in the locker room. He seemed to be in a constant state of agitation in the second year and did not get along well with Schmid or Seattle’s other emerging star, Fredy Montero.
Nkufo, on the other hand, was more of a team player and generally got along with his teammates. But he was being asked to play a role that wasn’t what he wanted to do at the end of his impressive career.
Nkufo didn’t mind starting off the game leading the forward line, but he wanted to drop off and be part of the midfield to build up play, according to people with knowledge of the matter. Schmid wanted him to physically mix it up with the opposing central defenders — who in the MLS are known to be physical and punishing.
“They wanted Nkufo to push up in front, push and shove, throw some elbows, receive the ball with his back to the defenders, lay off the ball to the wingers or to Montero,” said one observer familiar with the matter, who did not want to be identified. “Nkufo didnt want to do the dirty work. I dont think Sigi is asking too much of the player to play up front, hold the ball, win headers, get on the end of crosses.”
The source, a former pro, said it was understandable that Nkufo, at his age, might not agree. It’s tough and unglamorous.
“Nkufo seems like a gentlemanly old fashioned center forward,” he said. “Hes a nice a guy off the field, and plays like a nice guy on the field. He probably doesnt want to mix it up at his age.”
Hanauer said both sides came to an understanding, however difficult at the time: “It’s safe to say that he didn’t want to be in our plans and we didn’t think it was best if he was in our plans.”
The announcement put the Sounders under an uncomfortable media glare — particularly for a franchise that generally does things right. But such are the pressures for an ambitious club that wants to win trophies.
These kinds of decisions are happening more frequently in the MLS, where the designated player rule allows clubs to attract talented, and highly compensated, foreign players for the sole purpose of elevating the quality of play in the league.
But the DP rule also comes with some caveats. One of them is the league’s $2.67 million annual salary cap. Nkufo’s salary was $480,000 a year, but $335,000 of that counted against the Sounders’ salary cap. The Sounders made up the difference. The Sounders also had three DPs, the league limit, heading into the season — Nkufo, Montero and Alvaro Fernandez. The salary cap and DP limit offered little room to continue to seek an impact player that could fulfill the club’s aims for this season — winning a championship.
Steve Zakuani said the loss of Nkufo on the eve of the season “took some people by surprise.” But in the context of professional soccer, these kinds of decisions happen all the time.
“Hes a great player,” Zakuani said. “I think we all know that inside the club. Adrian knows that and Sigi knows that. What this club will always do is make a decision thats best for the club. As players who play for this club we respect that. We trust the front office. We trust the coaching staff. Theyve done a great job so far.”
Zakuani dismissed rumors of an altercation or a bust-up involving Nkufo with another player or with the coaching staff.
“There was never any incident,” Zakuani said. “When he trained he trained hard. When he played he played hard. He gave his best. This is purely a football decision. The club wanted to go one way and Blaise didnt want to go that way, and they mutually agreed to go their separate ways.”
Now, the clock is ticking again. The transfer window for players joining the league is open until April 15. Then it shuts down until the summer transfer window reopens July 15.
Hanauer said the club is on the hunt for a quality player.
“We have not found our 15-to-20 proven goal scorer,” Hanauer said. “We think Montero is developing into that player. Nate Jaqua might be that player. O’Brian White is developing into that. If the opportunity presented itself, we would certainly consider a player of that caliber.”
But he also said the club could use its new cap flexibility and open DP slot to find the best available player. It might not be a striker. The key is that the club is still looking to be as strong as it can be right now.
“There’s no chance that all that cap space will sit unused for the season,” Hanauer said. “Whether we act this week, next week or during the summer, I can’t tell you. The team today will definitely not be the entire team that finishes the season.”