The First Step

The Sounders FC returned to training on Monday without fallen midfielder Steve Zakuani and they look to fill his spot on and off the field.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Steve Zakuani quoted the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu on his twitter account from his hospital bed in Denver, Colorado, on Sunday.  The Sounders FC midfielder was referencing his own recovery from a fractured tibia and fibula suffered in Friday night’s 1-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids, but he very well could have been using the quotation as advice to his teammates.

Monday at Starfire, they took that first step as the team will look to find its new identity without their second leading scorer since the club’s inception in 2009.

It was a dark, rainy day at Starfire as the Sounders FC trained for the first time since the Friday night match at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, a sure reflection of the mood of Zakuani’s closest friends and teammates.

“There’s a cloud over us for sure,” defender James Riley said.  “We just lost one of our best attacking players and a great teammate, so I definitely think it was a little of a different vibe at practice.  But we’ll try to get along with it as much as possible.”

Head coach Sigi Schmid made a point to keep the players’ thoughts elsewhere in the days since the game, keeping his team informed while not over-saturating them with emotion after a very heavy weekend.

There was nothing different about the workload at Monday’s training session and no extra time before the session was spent dwelling on their fallen teammate.

However, Schmid is now faced with the challenge of filling Zakuani’s shoes.

Alvaro Fernandez subbed on for Zakuani on Friday and Erik Friberg played on the left side of midfield in a 1-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls in the second game of the season – a game Zakuani missed after another tackle by the Rapids in preseason left him with a strained groin.

The options don’t end there for Schmid and the Sounders though.

“Lamar Neagle has done well in the reserve games.  He is somebody else who can play wide.  Michael Tetteh right now is probably a better wide midfielder than he is left back so he is a possibility.  Miguel Montaño is somebody who can play there, needs to be sharper at practice on a daily basis in order to get himself in there,” Schmid said.  “And then we can always alter a little bit the way we play.”

Moving on mentally may be as difficult as filling Zakuani’s role on the left side of midfield.

“We’re trying to move on and obviously it’s difficult, so we’re going to take it a day at a time,” Riley said.  “Guys are just trying to move on as normal.  When he gets back to Seattle guys will go and visit and hang out with him for a little bit that way.”

For Zakuani, the healing process has already begun.  He had successful surgery late Friday, inserting a pin in his tibia while the fibula will be allowed to heal on its own.  While it may be too early to put a timetable for his return, one teammate indicated he wouldn’t be surprised to see him back on the field in 2011.

“Steve will bounce back.  I’m sure he will,” goalkeeper and captain Kasey Keller said.  “It will be a tough few months, but I’ll go out on a limb and say he’ll be back for the playoffs.”

Zakuani remained in Colorado after surgery and was visited by his mother and father, who flew in from London on Sunday.  He is expected to return to Seattle later this week.

At the Sounders match on Saturday against Toronto FC, fans are invited to sign over-sized cards for Zakuani at the Soccer Celebration, the northwest marshalling area and the entrance to the Qwest Field Pro Shop.  At the request of many supporters who voiced their condolences, the club will also distribute placards at the gates for an in-match salute.

For more information on ways to show support for Zakuani, click here.

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