By John Boyle Herald Columnist
TUKWILA — A couple of days before playing in what will be his first league game against the rival Portland Timbers, Sounders FC winger Steve Zakuani was discussing how that rivalry compares to the one he knew best as a child.
Growing up in London, where he was a huge fan of Arsenal, Zakuani remembers the heated games between his club and Tottenham, a game known as the North London Derby. And while that rivalry is almost 90 years older than Seattle-Portland, Zakuani sees some similarities.
“It’s …,” he said, pausing, “I don’t want to say hate, but it’s close to hate. It reminds me of that.”
That’s what we’re dealing with when it comes to Seattle and Portland, and …
Hey, wait a minute, what’s going on here? We’re talking to Steve Zakuani, and the topic isn’t his injury? Shouldn’t we be asking about the broken leg that kept him out for more than a year, or about whatever milestone he just accomplished on his road back, or is hoping to reach this weekend? Are we really (gasp) just having a soccer conversation with a soccer player, one that has nothing to do with the horrific leg injury that threatened to end his career?
Ah yes, we’ve now reached the best part, to date, in the Steve Zakuani comeback story — the point where we don’t have to talk about Steve Zakuani’s comeback anymore. Yes, the injury is certainly going to come up from time to time, but now it’s to the point where we can talk about whether, tactically, Zakuani is a good fit in what will surely be a physical game on a compact field in Portland. About how close he is to being 90-minute fit after starting each of Seattle’s past two league games.
Steve Zakuni’s injury is hardly a distant memory; it is still part of his story. He’s just ready for it to be only one chapter in the story of his soccer career, not the defining moment that dominates the conversation.
Back in July, when Zakuani made his 2012 debut as a late-game substitute in Colorado, that appearance was more about letting him get his feet wet than making a decision that made soccer sense. Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid admitted as much after the game. But two months later, Zakuani has now started consecutive games, and more and more each day, he is looking like the player he was before the injury, the player who looked to be on his way to being one of the league’s best.
“The Colorado game was just to get that out of the way because there was so much anticipation for when I would come back,” he said. “We just wanted to deal with that and we did, and I wasn’t as ready then as I am now. Now going into games I feel like I felt before. I just need to get my fitness back, my sharpness back and find my way back with the team — integrate back with their playing style, them getting used to me again, all those small things you can’t take for granted, because we need to rebuild that chemistry, and that’s what we’re working on now.”
And yes, I’m well aware of the fact that I’ve used the word injury six times now to make a point about Zakuani getting past his injury. Darn, that’s seven. So yes, this is still a part of Zakuani’s narrative. It has to be, and will likely be at least into next season. But with each passing game, with each full-speed run that makes an opposing defender look silly, that unfortunate April night in Colorado becomes more and more of a footnote, and less of an all-consuming storyline.
While Schmid and the players who have been around for a while are inevitably comparing the 2012 version of Zakuani to the pre-injury one, people who are new to the team, who weren’t very familiar with his game, are seeing him in a different light. Forward Eddie Johnson hadn’t seen much of Zakuani when Johnson joined the Sounders, but kept hearing assistant coach and friend Ezra Hendrickson rave about his talents. Now that Zakuani is back on the field, he’s not post-injury Steve Zakuani to people like Johnson, he’s just a talented left wing who makes the Sounders FC attack even more dangerous.
“He’s playing well,” Johnson said. “His first start, he set up a goal against Dallas. He just adds a different dimension to our team out wide. He’s a guy who can beat you consistently with the ball running at guys. He’s going to cause outside fullbacks a lot of problems. It’s just another weapon to add to our arsenal here in Seattle.”
Since breaking his leg nearly a year and a half ago, Zakuani has checked off sevral boxes on his road back — first time running, first full practice, first game with the reserve squad, first MLS appearance, first time not being listed on Seattle’s injury report, first start. Now, finally, he’s hit another big milestone; he’s talking about soccer, about rivalries, about the close friendship he has with Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe, about so many things other than an injury.
Shoot, that’s 11.
Herald columnist John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.