For 45 minutes on Friday night, a select number of fans at Starfire Stadium in Tukwila saw something they’d been waiting over 13 months for – Steve Zakuani in a rave green kit facing an MLS opponent.
Zakuani played the first half of Friday night’s 2-1 reserve league loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps and surprised even himself in how much he was able to do in his first action against MLS opposition since he suffered a fractured tibia and fibula in his right leg on April 22, 2011.
“For me, today was more than results and more than performance. It was about crossing off a really, really big checklist,” he said. “I did it. I’m happy. And I know tomorrow I’m going to feel sore, but it’s going to be a really, really good feeling. I haven’t felt that sore in a year, so it’s going to be a good feeling.”
In the game, he showed flashes of the player that scored ten goals and had six assists in 2010 and was well on his way to building into one of the top players in Major League Soccer before he suffered the horrific injury.
He was also on the receiving end of some tackles and while that may have caused some gasps from the crowd, it was just part of the process for Zakuani.
“I wasn’t really worried about that. That’s part of the game. I’ve had some in training and I got one in a game now,” he said. “I’m not really worried about re-doing the injury. It’s about rebuilding my fitness and building my sharpness and getting my touch back. Today was a good step forward.”
Zakuani was slated to make his first reserve game appearance when the Sounders faced Chivas USA in Carson, California, on April 23, but he wasn’t ready and pushed back his first appearance against an MLS opponent.
In the four weeks that followed, he met with head coach Sigi Schmid and fitness coach Dave Tenney and established a program to boost his progress. Although he’s not yet 100 percent, he made tremendous strides forward in those four weeks and his confidence was even greater on Friday than it could have been a month ago.
“I know I’m not the player I was on April 22,” Zakuani said, noting the date in 2011 that he fractured his leg against the Colorado Rapids. “That’s going to be something I’m going to have to live with for a while. But I do know I’m getting back toward being that guy. I did some things today that I didn’t think I could do and I was able to go a lot longer than I thought I would.”
The next step for Zakuani will be to play in a competitive match and he intimated after the match that his return won’t likely be in a starting role.
“As soon as I feel like I can get in and contribute – if it’s ten minutes there or 15 minutes there – I’ll be talking to Sigi to see what I can do,” Zakuani said. “I need more games like this because that’s the only way I’m going to get it back. Training is good, but I need more games. Getting that taste now just makes me hungry to get the real thing.”
As important as it was for him to get back on the field against an opponent, a big step for Zakuani was also to get back out in front of the fans that have been pining for his return and cheered him on along the way.
“I got to feel what it feels like to be in front of fans again. It’s a bit emotional. It’s been 13 months and I feel good,” he said. “I’m going in the right direction.”