In 2009, Steve Zakuani had been labeled a good, young MLS player. He wanted more though. The word “young,” he said, shouldn’t need to be part of the description.
This year, he has rapidly developed into one of the best wingers in MLS and is starting to draw attention from all circles of soccer.
The result could be an international game of tug-of-war for the 22-year-old Sounders FC midfielder. While he has publicly stated a lean toward representing the Democratic Republic of Congo as an international, the US and England have also become recently discussed potential footballing homes for Zakuani after he saw a realization of so much of his vast potential in his second year as a professional.
When the possibility of playing for America was first discussed in FourFourTwo, a monthly English soccer magazine, Zakuani was flattered, but insisted a lean towards his original country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid even got in on the parade of people campaigning for Zakuani to play for Bob Bradley and the US once he gets his green card. This week, another country was added to the mix when a soccer columnist at England’s Daily Mirror suggested that England’s Fabio Capello consider the MLS product.
Earlier this week, US captain Landon Donovan added his hat to the ring of Zakuani supporters in an interview with Sounders FC’s Arlo White that will run on Sunday’s pregame show for the MLS Cup Western Conference Semifinal match against the LA Galaxy on Sunday evening at 4:30.
“I’m always a little hesitant to jump on the bandwagon too quickly because there are a lot of guys who can come into a situation and do well for a few games or even half a season. So I always wait and reserve judgment,” said Donovan, whose Galaxy face the Sounders in the two-leg match. “This year I’ve been very impressed with him. I wasn’t really familiar with his situation, but now that I am I’ll be calling Bob up as soon as he gets his green card.”
That is high praise from a player who is widely considered the best in MLS and, to many, the best US Soccer has produced. And the compliment goes beyond just the ten goals and six assists Zakuani collected in 2010 and shows a much greater growth from Zakuani.
Many things drove him to this rapid improvement, not the least of which has been his close relationship with veteran teammates past and present to whom Zakuani has gravitated and absorbed as much as a single person can learn from another.
That education began almost as soon as he came to Seattle. His locker was directly adjacent to former Arsenal star Freddie Ljungberg. A product of Arsenal’s youth system himself, Zakuani was awed by his neighbor in the Sounders FC locker room.
Growing up in London, his coaches told him to watch Ljungberg and Robert Pires, wingers for Arsenal who had mastered the position. Watch how they made runs and how they score goals. Learn how they play and the sky would be the limit.
Once Ljungberg got to Seattle he had moved to a more central position, but he had plenty to teach Zakuani about playing on the wing.
“He would tell me how to make runs and we would combine so well because we understood each other,” Zakuani said. “It wasn’t so much student-teacher as much as a more experienced teammate showing me how to do things. I’ll always be grateful for that because one of the things I’ve improved on this year is my running off the ball and he is a very big reason for that because that’s what he did.”
In 2009, he tallied four goals and four assists to lead all rookies in scoring and was a finalist for MLS Rookie of the Year, losing out to LA Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez. He showed signs of danger on the left side, but was missing a link between his blinding speed and the back of the net.
He eased into the start of the season in 2010, recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. However, he wasn’t slowed at all by the limitations the sling on his arm put on his winter workouts.
Over the season’s first 15 matches, he worked more with Ljungberg, but also added some finishing work with Sigi Schmid and assistant coach Kurt Schmid to his training regimen. The result was five goals and three assists, already surpassing his goal total from his rookie campaign.
Then Nkufo joined the team on July 15. Soon after, Ljungberg departed in a trade to the Chicago Fire. One mentor simultaneously replacing another.
Early in his tenure with the club, Nkufo pulled Zakuani aside to work on finishing. Zakuani was momentarily stunned. He’d come so far, yet Nkufo saw the potential for more. Whereas the coaches were working with him before, Nkufo now offered another voice to help Zakuani become a star.
“He has a lot of quality, a lot of skills,” Nkufo said of Zakuani. “When you have skills like that, you have to work even harder. He wants to be better and that’s good for him and good for the team too.”
It may have helped that the new voice spoke French, was born in the Congo and relocated to Europe before finally deciding on a move to America. Almost out of the chute Zakuani and Nkufo were fast friends on and off the field.
It didn’t hurt any that the Sounders won instantly when Nkufo was introduced to the lineup. After posting four wins through the first 16 matches, Seattle won four in a row with Nkufo around and went unbeaten over seven straight.
“Blaise sees things his own way,” Zakuani said. “He told me I had the dribbling and speed and I need to work on my finishing. At that time I think I had seven goals, so I thought he was crazy. But as I thought of it, I realized he was right and I could have had 10 or 12 goals at that point.
Zakuani’s second half looked even stronger, even if his statistics show two equal halves to the season, as he finished with five goals and three assists in the second half as well as the first half.
“Steve really has shown a tremendous amount of character and openness and desire to become a better professional. No one ever doubted his raw talents. Even coming into last year he did a great job for us of scoring goals and creating assists,” Sounders FC owner/GM Adrian Hanauer said. “But he still has so much more to give even beyond this season. He realizes that hard work and learning from successful pros is the key to that upward progression and he’s embraced that wholeheartedly. I’m proud of him and the way he’s really taken that on.”
He’s not done now though. Driven by the desire to be among the best in the league, Zakuani continues to work with Nkufo after training gets out. He keeps watching video. And he keeps pushing the bar higher, knowing that there is always more for him to accomplish.
“I look at the wingers in the league and I’m very happy with where I stack up with those guys,” Zakuani said. “Now I’m chasing Landon Donovan, Dwayne DeRosario and these kind of guys. What are they doing every week that makes them so consistent over the years? I don’t feel like I need to add to my game as much as it’s just a continual improvement of what I’ve already got. I can score more goals, I can get more assists, I can become a better crosser, a better finisher, get better dribbling and running with the ball.”
Along with the help of his teammates, Zakuani also credit’s the confidence of Seattle’s coaching staff.
“It hasn’t always been easy, but Sigi’s always believed in my ability – even at times when I didn’t necessary believe in myself,” Zakuani said. “He was always telling me he wouldn’t trade me for anybody. That’s good to hear from your coach.”
Although his international career is uncertain, his professional career is continuing along a path that could have him playing among the world’s elite in no time. However, Zakuani is not going to be too quick to jump at the first European offer that comes his way - or the second, for that matter. He’s already proven that simply playing in Europe is not sufficient for his competitive nature. Prior to signing with MLS, he was offered a contract with Championship side Preston North End in England. However, he saw the potential in Seattle and in MLS and opted instead to don the rave green.
“This looked like the best place to be. I’ve come here and it’s been incredible. If I had gone to another team in the league would I be saying the same thing? I don’t think so. This place is so unique,” he said. “I love this place and I haven’t regretted the decision.”
Zakuani and the Sounders take on the Galaxy beginning Sunday at Qwest Field and finishing with the second leg on Sunday, November 7 at the Home Depot Center. The winner of the aggregate-goal series will advance to the Western Conference Finals the following week.