A few thoughts on former Sounder Steve Zakuani retiring far too soon

A few hours after the Sounders clinched the franchise’ first Supporters Shield, a player who should have been on the field with them as a core member of the franchise instead watched his new club fail to make the playoffs. Portland midfielder Steve Zakuani (yes, that’s still weird to write even after a full season away from Seattle) didn’t play for the Timbers Saturday night, his season having ended prematurely because of yet another injury.

And four days after Portland’s season came to an end, Zaukuani announced his retirement at the age of 26, marking the official end of a once-promising career that was forever altered by a gruesome 2011 injury.

“It is with great sadness that I have to announce my retirement from football,” Zakuani wrote on his website, stevezakuani.com. “To call this the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make in my life would be a massive understatement. I’ve wrestled with this decision for months, but after weighing up all of my options, and listening to my heart, even though it is painful to reach this conclusion, I know that it is the right one.”

Zakuani, the No. 1 overall pick by a then-expansion Sounders FC, was one of the team’s, then later league’s, most promising players in his first two-plus seasons. By the beginning of what looked to be like a breakout 2011 season, it was fair to wonder if Zakuani was long for MLS given his youth, talent and speed. Fans were debating what country the Congolese-born, London-raised, MLS standout should represent at the international level; Zakuani, along with Osvaldo Alonso, had spent time training with English Premier League club Everton following the 2010 season. The future seemed impossibly bright for a 23-year-old Zakuani when he started the 2011 season on a tear. But then in an April game in Colorado, Rapids midfielder Brian Mullan crashed into Zakuani with a hard tackle, fracturing the left winger’s fibula and tibia, an injury that, following multiple complications, would keep Zakuani sidelined until the middle of the 2012 season. Zakuani returned to game action in July of 2012, against Colorado of all teams, producing a chill-inducing moment.

But despite that feel-good return to the field, Zakuani was never the same. His broken bones healed, but other injuries plagued him through the 2012 and 2013 seasons in Seattle, and eventually he and the club that drafted him parted ways. Zakuani spent his final season with the rival Timbers, but it was yet another year filled with injuries.

“It’s no secret that I have been fighting some severe injuries since 2011 – a broken leg, compartment syndrome, two groin/hernia tears, and a couple of hamstring strains – each time I fought back from one injury, another one came along,” Zakuani wrote. “There’s no way to begin to describe the toll this has taken on me physically, and also mentally. Since April 2011, I have had seven surgeries and have spent twenty-six months rehabbing and working back from my many injuries. To spend two full years out of the last three, on the treatment table rather than the pitch, has been the hardest thing I’ve had to face in my career. I’ve had to dig really deep mentally to stop myself from going into despair.

“It’s gotten to the point where I have to be honest with myself and listen to my body. I believe that because of my love for the game, if I had to, I could find the strength to play for a few more years, but I would be doing so through a lot of aches and pain – and in the grand scheme of things that isn’t worth it to me. I love playing football but I don’t want to compromise my long-term health for it. I never imagined that I would have to retire from football at the age of 26, but that’s what it has come down to. When my career became more about the injections, MRI’s, surgeries, doctors visits, painkillers, and limited physical capabilities, than the playing, enjoyment, love, and passion for the game, I knew it was time to call it a day.”

Zakuani’s story isn’t a tragic one, no matter what hyperbolic statements you might hear about his far-too-brief career. Tragedy is what happened in Marysville last week; it’s Cardinal outfielder Oscar Taveras dying in a car crash three days ago; it’s a 16-year-old in Long Island, NY dying after suffering a head injury in a high school football game earlier this month. But even if Zakuani’s story isn’t one of tragedy, it is still sad to see such a promising career cut short by one unfortunate and avoidable injury.

As that final Timbers game wound down Saturday, I watched while having a post-Sounders-game beer with Seattle Times soccer writer Matt Pentz. At some point the conversation shifted to Zakuani, to what might have been, and immediately my thoughts went back to the explosive winger who was so dangerous on the left flank just a few years earlier. Zakuani would jog, shuffling his feet, almost with a slight limp—perhaps the result of a serious injury suffered as a teenager in a moped accident, or perhaps that was just his half-speed trot—then in an instant Zakuani would explode down the sideline, run at a defender, win a one-on-one battle then cut the ball inside to either set up a goal or score one himself. He was easily one of the most exciting players on those early Sounders teams, and had things played out differently, he could have and should have been a part of the franchise’s nucleus this season along with players like Alonso, Brad Evans, Zach Scott and Leo Gonzales, the last remaining players from that 2009 team.

Instead, Zakuani’s career ended Tuesday with little fanfare. A potentially great player and all-around class act didn’t get a chance to live up to his potential. A terrible injury sped up the cause of so many retirements in sports: the pain eventually out-weight the joy.

“I’ve given it all I can, and the time to stop fighting is now,” Zakuani wrote. “Having to fight my body just to get through a week of practice isn’t worth it. There’s no enjoyment in that, only physical pain and mental anguish.”

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