Steve Zakuani made a dramatic step in his long-awaited return to the pitch when he played in a training game against the Gonzaga Bulldogs at Starfire on Sunday.
He was scheduled to play 20 minutes in the game that featured mostly reserves who didn’t play in Seattle’s 1-0 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday, but in all the excitement he wound up playing a full 45 minutes as the Sounders topped the Bulldogs 4-0.
“That was the agreement, but we kind of forgot. Nobody said anything, so I just kept playing,” Zakuani smiled after the match. “That was my first game against actually competition since Colorado a year ago. It was a good step forward. Now I want to see how I can build on it.”
Zakuani admitted to being apprehensive in his first ten minutes. Coincidentally, he was tackled for the first time in the match at about the ten-minute mark. Three minutes later, he rifled a right-footed shot from the top of the box, but his shot skipped just wide of the far post.
“I ended up having 20-25 really good minutes. Now I’ll see what’s missing,” he said. “I think I’m really pushing toward those final stages. I’ve been waiting for this day for a very long time and I’m just happy.”
While he took a giant step toward getting back into MLS action, Zakuani isn’t expecting that return to happen in the coming weeks.
“I’m under no illusions of the level that it is to be able to get back there,” he said. “This is good, but I’m still going to keep it in perspective and be realistic that I still have a long way to go in terms of being ready to play an actual game. This is a good step forward.”
Although it was his first time playing against an opponent that wasn’t wearing a Sounders jersey, it wasn’t the first time he’d been tackled – or done the tackling, for that matter. So a tenth minute tackle just outside the attacking box didn’t slow him in the least.
“I’ve been getting it in training anyway. I’m not really worried about that,” he said. “The thing that I’m more concerned with is making sure my touch is good and my positional awareness. I still know how to play. I still have the same brain I had before. It’s just a matter of letting my body to catch up to where my mind is and I think it’s starting to do that. I think this was the perfect game to try and come and play.”
The 24-year-old midfielder will now await word from the Sounders coaching staff on the next step in his return from a fractured tibia and fibula suffered in a tackle by Colorado Rapids midfielder Brian Mullan on April 22, 2011. In addition to the fracture and nerve damage, Zakuani also had to have a second surgery to relieve swelling in his leg from compartment syndrome – a condition that can lead to amputation if not treated immediately.
Led by fitness coach Dave Tenney, the Sounders technical staff will examine the readouts from all the data collected during the match and assess the next step.
“It was good for him to get out there and play against opposition,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said. “It was a big step psychologically and a big step physically.”
It may take a few days for the coaches to sift through the data and determine their plan of action moving forward, but minutes after coming off the field, Zakuani already knew what his immediate plans were.
“Go home and sleep,” he said, flashing his million-dollar grin.
And he will sleep well. After all, it won’t be long until that grin will adorn his face at CenturyLink Field again.