Two key aspects of a soccer goalkeeper — staying focused and instilling confidence in teammates — were admitted struggles for Minnesota United FC’s Sammy Ndjock during the spring season.
Both player and team seek redemption as the North American Soccer League fall season begins at 7 p.m. Saturday against Carolina at the National Sports Center Stadium. The Loons fell from the top of the spring season table to out of title contention and expect to make the remaining 22 league matches better than the previous 10.
Ndjock, in his second season as Minnesota’s goalie, knows his role is critical.
“I don’t want to be the hero,” said Ndjock, whose picture adorns the team’s schedule magnets and media credentials. “But when you’re building a house, you need that first rock. You don’t see that rock, but without it you can’t build a house.”
High-level soccer opportunities elevated Ndjock’s profile. The 26-year-old played in France and Turkey and made the Cameroonian final roster for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
This spring, however, talk of rejoining Cameroon’s national team hurt his play with Minnesota. He said Cameroon team officials wanted him in goal May 31 for a friendly against France before ultimately going another direction.
The distraction, he said, led to struggles in a loss to Ottawa on May 7, and subsequent losses to Indy Eleven, Tampa Bay and Rayo OKC. A mental error in extra time resulted in Ottawa’s second goal, described by coach Carl Craig as a “faux pas.”
Though he regrouped to blank Jacksonville a week later, Ndjock said he remained in a funk as the Loons fell against Indy Eleven, Tampa Bay and Rayo OKC.
Seeing the fall season as a fresh start, Ndjock aims to restore teammates’ trust in their last line of defense.
“If I’m in form, it’s 50 percent harder to beat us,” Ndjock said. “If I feel lazy or tired, my players are going to give up easily. I try to play the game calm.”
Cameroon national team talk is swirling again, Ndjock said, this time regarding a September match against Gambia as part of the 2017 African Cup of Nations qualification tournament. Though he will take the spot if it’s offered, Ndjock said he won’t fool himself again.
“My head is not there,” Ndjock said. “My first job is here, 100 percent. Winning the Golden Glove [the league’s top goalkeeper award] this year is my target. And I want to get my first championship here.”
Quick and athletic, the 6-3, 187-pound Ndjock made a solid NASL debut last season. He was one of four goalies to log more than 2,000 minutes, finished third with 12 victories and tied for third in fewest goals allowed (25) and most shutouts (seven).
Ndjock tied for second with five victories and four shutouts this spring.
A tussle in the second half of Minnesota’s U.S. Open Cup tournament match against Sporting Kansas City of Major League Soccer taught Ndjock that sometimes walking away is best. Minnesota’s Damion Lowe leveled Dom Dwyer with a hard foul deep in Loons territory. Sporting KC teammate Roger Espinoza took exception and shoved Lowe to the ground from behind. Incensed, Ndjock ran out and did the same to Espinoza.
Officials gave Lowe, Espinoza and Ndjock yellow cards. After the 2-1 overtime loss, Minnesota United Sporting Director Manny Lagos gave Ndjock some perspective.
“He told me if I didn’t do that, it’s probably a red card for [Espinoza]” Ndjock said. “There were emotions and I thought I needed to defend my boy. But it was a mistake because if they go down to 10 men, maybe we score.”