By Matt Gaschk
SEATTLE – 39,060 fans at CenturyLink Field all breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Then they all let out an exuberant cheer.
The Sounders FC returned to the win column after nine straight matches without a victory as Alvaro Fernandez and Eddie Johnson converted Mauro Rosales assists to power Seattle to a 2-1 victory over the Colorado Rapids.
But the greatest cheer came in the 86th minute when Steve Zakuani made his first MLS appearance since suffering a fractured tibia and fibula on April 22, 2011.
"For sure the eruption of the crowd was as loud as I think I've ever heard here. It was fantastic," Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said.
The Sounders looked a lot like the team that started the season on a 7-1-1 clip in the game's first 22 minutes. In that time, they managed six shots while keeping all of Colorado's possession outside the box. They forced Colorado goalkeeper Matt Pickens into three first-half saves. However, the second half would produce some magic from Rosales as the Sounders were finally able to convert his crosses.
In the 51st minute, Rosales played a free kick into the box from about 40 yards out, sailing it just over the head of Johnson and forcing Pickens to dive to his left to punch the ball clear for a corner kick.
On the corner kick, Rosales found Fernandez seven yards off the near post for a low header. Pickens got a hand to it, but not enough to keep it out of the net and Fernandez celebrated his first goal of the season, giving the Sounders the 1-0 lead.
Fernandez nearly doubled the lead just one minute later when Andy Rose played him in behind the Colorado defense. Fernandez caught Pickens off his line and tried to chip past him, but missed wide and the lead remained at 1-0.
That would change in the 64th minute.
Patrick Ianni recovered a ball at the edge of the box after Colorado defended a corner kick. Ianni played it out to the left side to Rosales, who sent it back into the box where Johnson was all alone for a header that he put back inside the left post for his eighth goal of the season to give the Sounders the 2-0 lead.
"I think Mauro and I are starting to build a good relationship," Johnson said. "You know when he has the ball out wide, he's going to do one thing – he's going to whip the ball in the box. I just wanted to be alert and be dangerous in the box when the ball comes in and I was able to get on the end of it."
Colorado would claw back, though, and Omar Cummings got on the end of a ball from Luis Zapata to make it 2-1 in the 79th minute.
They even appeared to equalize in the 85th minute when Cummings redirected a ball from Jeff Larentowicz and put it inside the far post. However the offside flag was up, paving the way for Zakuani's return before the restart.
He crouched at midfield while the fourth official raised the substitute board with "11" coming on to replace "10."
The crowd whipped into a frenzy as Rosales jogged to the sideline, stopping to hug Zakuani before the 24-year-old dynamo could run out to his position.
"I am honestly overwhelmed. I tried to visualize what that moment would be like for almost a year," Zakuani said. "It was something I can't describe. It is a great night for the Sounders organization all around."
Zakuani got a few touches, but found himself defending the one-goal lead much more often. Martin Rivero gave Seattle another scare in the final moments of the game when he charged on a ball at the top of the box in stoppage time, but he missed high with his shot.
When the final whistle blew, two images conveyed the story of the previous 90 minutes.
One was three Sounders players crumbled to the ground near the edge of their defensive 18-yard box, exhausted from the effort put forth to end a nine-match winless streak.
The other was Zakuani and Brian Mullan exchanging jerseys and a hug at the center circle, bringing full-circle the story of Zakuani's injury and recovery.
"Hopefully it provides an end to it," Schmid said. "I think people have moved on, but it sort of provides a venue for everybody to see the completion of the cycle."
The Sounders will host Chivas USA in the semifinals of the US Open Cup on Wednesday at Starfire before returning to MLS play on Sunday at Red Bull Arena against the New York Red Bulls.
Sounders FC – Alvaro Fernandez (Mauro Rosales) 52; Eddie Johnson (Mauro Rosales) 64.
Rapids – Omar Cummings (Luis Zapata, Jaime Castrillon) 79.
Sounders FC – Eddie Johnson (caution) 64.
Rapids – Martin Rivero (caution) 41.
Sounders FC – Bryan Meredith, Adam Johansson, Jeff Parke, Patrick Ianni, Marc Burch, Alex Caskey, Osvaldo Alonso, Andy Rose, Alvaro Fernandez (Cordell Cato 81), Mauro Rosales (Steve Zakuani 86), Eddie Johnson (Fredy Montero 72).
Rapids – Matt Pickens, Hunter Freeman, Marvell Wynne, Drew Moor, Luis Zapata, Jeff Larentowicz, Jaime Castrillon (Tony Cascio 84), Martin Rivero, Brian Mullan, Jamie Smith (Omar Cummings 67), Conor Casey (Edu 67).