When Steve Zakuani lines up against the Kansas City Wizards on Saturday at Qwest Field, he will see some familiar faces across the pitch.
However, it won’t just be college teammate and MLS rookie Teal Bunbury who will draw more than just a proverbial pregame handshake from the second-year Sounders midfielder. Zakuani also spent much of his youth playing with Wizards midfielder Ryan Smith.
Both products of the Arsenal youth system in London, Smith and Zakuani grew up in the same neighborhood, playing in the same games on the streets and learning the same position together.
“We played five years together at Arsenal. He was in the age group above me, but I was always told to watch his game,” Zakuani said. “We grew up in the same neighborhood. So we grew up being very good friends.”
That familiarity could bode well for the Sounders. Smith, a newcomer to the league, jumped around from team to team in England before coming stateside. In addition to his time with Arsenal, he also played with Leicester City, Derby County, Millwall, Southampton and Crystal Palace before joining the Wizards this year. He has run roughshod in his first two MLS games with a goal and two assists.
Zakuani, though, may have a better scouting report on the 23-year-old Englishman and he’s passing that report on to James Riley, who likely will hold defensive responsibilities against the left winger.
“He’s a very good player. He’s one of those guys who grew up playing on the streets, just like me. We grew up around the same circle and both played the same position,” Zakuani said. “He’s very quick, all left-foot and if he’s on, he’s going to cause a few problems.”
Smith has also shown early in his MLS career that he can grow a bit heated when things aren’t going his way. That, Zakuani says, can be seen by some as a problem. Teammates, though, admire the passion and, according to Zakuani, are often lifted by the signs of emotion from key players.
“He’s one of those guys who is passionate and wants to win. I think you see that in a lot of good players. They want to win the game so much. Freddie (Ljungberg) is exactly the same,” Zakuani said. “Ryan’s also the kind of guy that just loves to play soccer. He’s fitting in well, so it’ll be interesting.”
Bunbury also will draw some attention from Zakuani.
“Teal’s almost like family. It’s going to be fun playing on the same field,” Zakuani said.
Teammates at the University of Akron in 2008, Zakuani was to Bunbury as Smith was to him a few years earlier. They played together for just one year, but as the elder statesman of the two, Zakuani found himself as something of a role model for Bunbury.
“I showed him the ropes, then when I left, he took over the mantle,” Zakuani said, noting that they have had similar experiences, though one year apart.
Used in a reserve role in his first two MLS games, Bunbury showed in his collegiate days that he can be a scoring force when called upon. Like Zakuani in his sophomore season, Bunbury led the NCAA in scoring last year with 17 goals.
As friendly as they may be off the field, they will turn to foes when the Sounders and Wizards take the field at noon Saturday at Qwest Field. Seattle is 1-1-1 (4 points), while Kansas City leads the Eastern Conference at 2-0-0 (6 points).