By John Boyle Herald Columnist
TUKWILA — Even as he and his teammates struggled to accept the end of the Seattle Sounders’ season, as they felt the sting of coming so close to playing for a championship only to fall just short, even through all of that pain, Steve Zakuani saw a glimpse of hope.
On that November evening, when the Sounders needed to play its best game to save its season, Zakuani, finally, felt like he was all the way back. On that November night when Seattle’s comeback wasn’t quite enough, Zakuani didn’t just play one of his best games since coming back from an injury that not only threatened to take his career, but also his leg, he played one of his best games since joining the Sounders in 2009.
“You can go back before I was injured and you won’t find many better performance I gave than the one I gave tonight,” Zakuani said two months ago. “Tonight was an important game.”
As the Sounders opened their preseason training this week, Zakuani expanded on the importance of that performance.
“It gave me a lot of confidence,” he said. “I know we lost to LA, but from a personal standpoint, I was very happy. I knew already at that point that I was ready to perform at that kind of level, but I hadn’t been playing.
“When the moment came, I felt ready, and it gives me confidence that I check off the final mark of, ‘Can I get back to feeling how if felt before?’ I did, and then had two months to get away and work hard, because last year I came in this time and I couldn’t even jog. It was just too much for me. Now, it’s fine, it’s just like it was before. I have a lot of confidence right now.”
The Sounders haven’t had Zakuani, one of the league’s most talented wingers, at full strength in almost two years. After emerging as a young up-and-coming player in 2010, the former No. 1 pick was on his way to becoming one of the league’s best players in 2011 before suffering a severe lower-leg injury just seven games into the season. He missed all of that season, and slowly worked his way back last year until he was finally able to return to game action last summer.
Now, Zakuani has his game back, and just as importantly, his confidence. Unlike last year, when he was focused on rehabbing an injury just to return to action, he begins this preseason at full strength, focused on helping his team win a championship, not on a personal comeback.
And that’s why, regardless of whether the Sounders make a big-name signing to fill its vacant designated players spot, Zakuani, despite having never left, may well be Seattle’s biggest addition for the 2013 season.
Without making a trade, without spending any extra money, Seattle will open this season with a dynamic left winger equally capable of creating and scoring goals, a player that wasn’t available when the 2012 season opened. Adding a weapon like Zakuani would be a plus for any team in Major League Soccer, but it’s especially important for Seattle as it prepares for its first season without Fredy Montero, the Sounders’ all-time leading scorer, who is now playing in Colombia.
“It is like adding a player,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said of Zakuani. “Coming into the season, him and (midfielder Mario Martinez, a late-season signing in 2012) for me are like additions. I don’t view them as returning guys from last year, I really think they’re additions from our team last year.
“When you look at the minutes they played, the impact they had, how late we were able to put them into our team’s plans, having them there from the beginning is a big difference.”
Zakuani doesn’t just come into this season feeling like he is past his injury, he says he is “in the best shape I’ve been in in my career.” Yet as important as Zakuani’s physical recovery will be to Seattle’s 2013 hopes, what could make the biggest difference is the increased leadership role the soon-to-be 25-year-old is taking on this season.
Zakuani has decided to approach this season with a new level of focus that he hopes will help him and his team take a step forward. Zakuani’s off-field hobby of writing and recording rap music will have to wait until the season ends, and the once-prolific Twitter user will give social media a break this year as well.
“One of the things for me is to give everything I have to my job here and really focus in,” Zakuani said. “I don’t want to have any distractions. No music, nothing, there’s no extra-curricular activities. It’s just football.”
It’s not that Zakuani ever lacked focus, maturity, or work ethic, but his desire to do even more already is evident to his teammates.
“I’ve roomed with him (on road trips) the last four years, and even when he was 21, he was one of the most mature people I’ve met,” defender Patrick Ianni said. “So I’ve always seen him in that light.
“But he’s definitely taken on more of a leadership role, which is good to seen, because when one of your more talented players is focused and dedicated and sacrificing for the team cause, people will follow that for sure.”
Talented, healthy and focused, Zakuani is poised to be Seattle’s biggest addition in the 2013 season, even if he’s been here all along.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.