BY Stanley Holmes 11:44AM 03/17/2011

Why Blaise Nkufo left

Age, contract size, a deadline and a role he didn’t want led to departure

Sounders striker Blaise Nkufo in his final match for the Sounders. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

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.

Sounders forward Blaise Nkufo. (Drew McKenzie/Sports Press Northwest)

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 didn’t want to do the dirty work. I don’t 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. “He’s a nice a guy off the field, and plays like a nice guy on the field. He probably doesn’t want to mix it up at his age.”

Blaise Nkufo 'didn't want to do the dirty work.' / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

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.

“He’s 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 that’s best for the club. As players who play for this club we respect that. We trust the front office. We trust the coaching staff. They’ve 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 didn’t 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.”


YourThoughts

  • http://vancouver.theoffside.com Brenton Walters

    We have not found our 15-to-20 proven goal scorer

    Considering there were only a few scorers who hit 15 last season, I think he’s being a little ambitious. No team had a 20-goal scorer last season. 15 is even asking a lot.

    • Stanley Holmes

      Hey Brenton,
      I think the point is that the FO is committed to finding a difference maker–preferably a cold, calculating and clinical finisher.

  • Alex

    This is the best coverage of the Sounders and Nkufo by a mile. Nice work!

    • Stanley Holmes

      Thanks, Alex. We try.

  • http://www.weareecs.com Jon Danforth

    Way to go Holmes, damn fine reporting

    • Stanley Holmes

      Thanks, Jon. Appreciate it.

  • Jason

    “Finally, there was the Major League Soccer deadline for designated players…”

    I don’t think it’s specifically designated players, it’s any player with a guaranteed contract. This year’s roster rules allow each club to buyout the contract of one player prior to the start of the season and free up that money under the salary cap. Once the season starts that option is gone.

    http://www.mlssoccer.com/2011-mls-roster-rules

    • Stanley Holmes

      You are correct. In this case, it happened to be a designated player. But it could have been any player.

  • solles

    course its not “the MLS”, would you say “the MLB”?

  • Pingback: Exit 164: You Stop Price, You Beat Georgia | sportspressnw.com

  • dave

    Not only of the Sounders and Blaise, this is some of the finest soccer reporting I have ever seen in the States. Well done sir.

  • Scott

    Great article. Glad to see Nkufo go. SPNW is the best place for Sounders coverage!

    • culeeero

      Hanauer thinks Nate Jaqua can score 15-20 goals a season? What? WHAT?

  • Gunner4Life

    Stanley, excellent job reporting this story. This one is a tough one. It’s yet another example of an experienced European player not able to get along with Schmid. It is disingenuous for the FO to keep saying that we need a proven goal scorer. We knew this from the very start. If you can throw away one million dollars on a refund, then you have the money to buy a striker. As to the salary cap argument, I am much less concerned about a quality player like Nkufo taking up the 335K slot when Jaqua takes up nearly 10% of the cap. His salary in relation to his ability is downright shocking. If the FO were truly serious about the salary cap, they would have addressed this long ago. If Schmid wants a big, physical body in the box, Jaqua is not that guy. For as big as he is, he nibbles on the edge of the area and drifts back into the midfield. When he has his back to goal, he is overpowered by defenders, and he rarely distributes well. Little Patrick Ianni is more powerful in the air than Jaqua. The FO is obsessed with purchasing nimble midfielders who can do multiple things on the pitch. That is fine to a certain point. At some point, you have to buy a striker who can get it done. That being said, O’Brien White was a shrewd pick-up. He has a bright future. If people saw him play with Toronto, they will understand. He is physical, has a decent touch, and can finish. Let’s hope that his future comes sooner than expected.

  • Tom W

    Have to echo the earlier comments. Appreciate in particular how you went the extra mile to cover a variety of angles; that’s very rare on the web and non-existent in our major media.

    And if you find that “cold, calculating, and clinical” finisher lying around somewhere, give Adrian a call :-)

  • Luis

    Very nicely written article. It explains the nuances of the interaction of a Soccer striker with the soccer ball, field positioning and other players on the field in interesting detail. Thank you!

  • c0ldcuts

    Good story! Even though i already read it After the match that night.
    Just a little late!!

    • http://www.derekmyoung.com Derek Young

      Great summary. I have to say that I was shocked when I found out at the match that he’d been released. Appalled even. But hearing the explanation it actually makes a lot of sense. You could kinda tell he wasn’t particularly happy and obviously we don’t need another withdrawn forward (particularly one his size/speed).

  • Chuck

    Hanauer – there is no way, EVER, that Nate Jacqua can score that many goals. He is done developing. He is barely an MLS player, forget about a league leader.

    Sigi should really stop trying to play like a 3rd division English coach. We don’t need big target clod forwards. Get us another skillful Latin American player to add to our chemistry and who can dribble, pass and score. On the ground. Not in the air please.

    While we’re at it, we need grass!

  • Frank

    Yeah, Nate Jaqua can score 15-20 goals a season. Just not in this league. Maybe in the Saskatchewan amateur football league…

    It was pretty clear that Blaise didn’t fit into the squad. However, I see a different reason why: his playing ability and his skills are 10 times that of every one else on the squad. Let’s be honest, compared to the level of game played outside of the US, the Sounders are a third-league team. Having a first league player on the squad doesn’t work. When you saw Blaise move on and off the ball, creating opportunities that nobody was there to take advantage off, then you understand why it didn’t work out. What Sigi is trying to do is to create a homogenous team on the pitch – which is a fine goal because such a team plays better together. Unfortunately, it comes at the expense of having the best team on the pitch and at the expense of playing the highest quality soccer possible…

  • Seybold

    Thanks for an excellent article. I’ve been wondering about Nkufo’s role for awhile now.

    When Nkufo first arrived last year, he played well up top as a target striker, which allowed Montero room to wander back into midfield and set up play. Llundberg was gone by then, so he wasn’t getting in Montero’s way any more. It seemed ideal.

    Then Nkufo started to wander back into midfield along with Montero. I wondered if it was by design (some European teams have played that way in recent years, the so-called 4-6-0 formation). It worked well to put the wingers, Zakuani and Nyassi, in on goal on the counterattack, and they started scoring a lot. But the goals for the strikers dried up, and the Sounders lacked as much thrust through the middle. I’d wondered if Nkufo was following the tactical plan, or if he’d gone off the reservation.

    Thanks so much for answering this question. Sounders tactics geeks thank you!

    • Stanley Holmes

      You’re welcome. Always happy to help out the geeks:)
      Thanks to everyone else for the kind and informative comments.
      Our aim is to bring national journalism standards to the Sounders and to the coverage of professional soccer. Expect to see more of the same. We’re just warming up!

  • http://internationalcourtsoccer.com john birks

    Thank you so much for helping clear the air.
    Why the F didn’t the Sounders have the balls to air this.
    I was a big fan of Blaise and thought he played very well. Why bring a player like Blaise if you are not going to play him to his strengths,which are control,distribute and score?
    Peace,
    The Dude

  • EverydayFan

    Took me a while to find it, but agree that this is great reporting and the best detail by far on the departure of Nkufo, which was tough for a lot of us fans.

    Looking forward to following the Sounders on NWSP!

  • EverydayFan

    Er, SPNW ;-)

  • Pedregosa Joe

    Your work is very much appreciated – I found it while searching for background on the Blaise situation and it is now bookmarked.

  • Anonymous

    Now about the $700k Holt is earning. Sounds like he was a REAL good coach when he was at 5 star-loaded USC, but so far I’d say he merits a “C” at best.

    He may need to meet with Sark about getting his pay in line with his skill set.

  • Anonymous

    Opponent 3rd down coversions: 21 of 30.
    Passing yards the 1st 2 games: 806 (a Husky record for ineptness)

    So tell me, why is Holt getting paid $700K? It appears the guy should either tell Sark to reduce his salary, dramatically, or Sark should show Holt the door.

    As to the offense I was impressed with the routes run and the passing accuracy of Price. The UW is obviously loaded with sure-handed receivers and stretching the field as they did will help Polk. Passes to sure-handed, strong TE’s on seam routes are always solid gainers.
    The O-line seems to be jelling and appears to be a strong part of the team.

  • SpudzDP

    Ty Willingham and his staff positively destroyed the Husky defensive squad.  I never understood why defense was so overlooked and neglected by them.  I mean, his coaching philosophy, recruiting abilities, personality and game time acumen sucked — but that was due to his own short comings and incompetence.  His disdain for defense, however, seemed nearly diabolical —  as if he was told to do so by a voice that only he heard in his tightly guarded, paranoid, little world.  But enough of him.  
    This will be Holt’s 3rd crack at turning the mess left him around, and it looks like he’s finally acquired enough of the talent to so.  But he still needs time.  He has till the end of November.

  • Smoothfox

    Steve says, “Given the threat he is to run, I can see that if Price remains healthy, Nick Montana may leave the UW in three years as an unfounded rumor.”

    What makes you think Nick Montana will stick around UW — if Price remains healthy, Montana will transfer.