Steve Zakuani was lacing up his boots in the Everton dressing room prior to his first training session with the English Premier League club. At 22 years old, Zakuani was getting a look at the play with one of the mid-level teams in the EPL.
Just then, the club’s captain, 33-year-old Phil Neville approached. The former England international has over 400 Premier League appearances with Manchester United and Everton and 59 caps for England. Zakuani definitely knew the man standing in front of him. Surprisingly, Neville knew Zakuani too.
“I’m the club captain and I’m the right back,” Neville said to the fresh-faced youth who came over from America to train. “Take it easy on me in training.”
That drew a laugh from Zakuani.
First, because of the smile Neville flashed to him as he walked away. Second, because Neville knew his game. He’d seen Zakuani play because he watches MLS matches regularly. As did several other Everton players.
“They’ve seen Qwest Field on TV and were amazed,” Zakuani said after returning from a short stint with Everton while he was home in London. “Everton as a club, follows MLS very closely and they knew what they were going to see from me.”
Zakuani was with the club from Liverpool for ten days, training with the likes of South African midfielder Steven Pienaar, French forward Louis Saha and Nigerian striker Yakubu Aiyegbeni, among others. His agent arranged the training allowing Zakuani the chance to see what the training atmosphere is like overseas.
While he has experience training with the Arsenal Youth system and with Preston North End earlier in his career, the training at this stage in his career is important.
However, he didn’t go through the culture shock that some players experience when going from one continent to another to train. With his previous experience playing with English clubs and his years living in London, Zakuani was no stranger to the game he was playing.
With that knowledge and experience in his arsenal, Zakuani stands firm behind MLS.
“This is the Premiership, the highest level, but I left there with a bigger appreciation for the MLS,” Zakuani said. “People will always say it’s the highest league in the world, but the MLS isn’t too far behind and they understand that over there more than Americans do. It was great for me to see that and appreciate more what we have in Seattle.”
The league, he says, is gaining a strong reputation overseas for several reasons.
The US National Team’s performance in the World Cup, coming narrowly close to a quarterfinal appearance, reaffirmed for many that the game was growing rapidly in the states. The strong play in England by US goalkeeper Tim Howard with Everton and US midfielder Clint Dempsey with Fulham is solidifying those beliefs and nobody near the Everton club can get away from talking about Landon Donovan, who played on loan with them last season. His success there and in the World Cup and David Beckham’s success with AC Milan further showed the quality of players in MLS.
In addition to the level of play, Zakuani also noticed that there wasn’t much difference in the amenities.
“Everything we had over there was first class, but we have the same in Seattle. So there’s nothing really to be envious of from that perspective,” he said. “We’ve got soccer specific stadiums, we’ve got good facilities, we’ve got top players in the league, the national team is competing on a world stage. There’s not really a difference between here and England. I don’t really subscribe to the view that Europe is the Promised Land. Maybe become I came from there, I just don’t see that.”
In his training stint with Everton, Zakuani was used in his traditional role on the left wing by manager David Moyes. On one play in particular he made a dribbling run and had a shot that hit the post past Howard after a deflection that was heartily praised by Moyes and the coaching staff.
Despite his comfort and success working with Everton, Zakuani clarified that this was just training and not a trial. He has no aspirations to leave the Sounders or MLS in the near future.
“The way I look at it, it would take something special for me to leave Seattle right now. Our team is very young and I have played with Fredy Montero and Ozzie Alonso for two years now. I think we’re getting to the stage where Columbus and Houston got to, where the team has been together and things become automatic,” he said. “You don’t want to leave when you’ve worked so hard to build something. I’m on a good team playing in front of amazing fans in great facilities and I’m leading a great life here even away from the game. You can never say never, but I have three years on my contract and I’m here until the club tells me they don’t need me.”
With still nearly two months before training camp starts, Zakuani already has his focus geared toward 2011 with the Sounders FC and working toward more silverware for the trophy case.
“I can’t wait for March – I can’t stop thinking about it.”