Steve Zakuani was hopeful that Wednesday night at CenturyLink Field he would be able to make his return to Major League Soccer action when the Sounders met Sporting Kansas City.
For the first time since April 22, 2011, he was included in the 18-man roster and was on the bench waiting for his opportunity to take a dramatic step toward getting back to the form of the ten-goal season he had in 2010.
However, a rough-and-tumble game between the Sounders and Sporting KC led head coach Sigi Schmid to opt against bringing the star left-winger back on that night.
“One of the reasons I didn’t come with him was because of the physical nature of the game and the referee wasn’t really protecting players and I didn’t think that was a good environment to throw him into in the first game,” Schmid said.
Even without the playing time, it was an incredible step forward for a player who was stricken not just with a fractured tibia and fibula in his right leg, but also with compartment syndrome that badly affected the nerves in his leg and foot.
“It’s the first time I’ve watched the game from the bench in over a year. It was a good experience for me to have that taste today,” Zakuani said. “It would have been nice to get in, but the way the game went, it probably was smart not to. I feel a lot more part of the team with that kind of step forward. It was a huge step forward.”
Zakuani had seen time in a reserve match against the Vancouver Whitecaps on June 1, as well as in three training scrimmages. In recent weeks, he was making big improvements in his training sessions, moving closer and closer to the Zakuani of old.
His presence on the bench was an added emotional boost to a team bouncing back from a 4-1 defeat to the expansion Montreal Impact on Saturday.
“That’s the biggest story of the night, honestly. It’s so good to have him back with the team,” said defender Patrick Ianni, a close friend of Zakuani who scored the equalizing goal on a tremendous volley in the first half. “He means so much to all the guys.”
Zakuani heard cheers of support from the fans in attendance as he warmed up for the start of the match, then again when he did drills along the endline during the second half, preparing for the possibility of entering the match.
When his number wasn’t called though, he still felt good about the experience.
“I was on my toes ready to go,” he said. “When it didn’t happen, it’s not a disappointment. I understand the decision, of course.”
Seattle’s next match – and Zakuani’s next opportunity to make his 2012 debut – will be Sunday when the Sounders meet the Portland Timbers at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland. However, Schmid won’t sub him into a match unless it makes sense for the team’s designs at winning the game while also providing Zakuani with a proper landing.
“We’ll see how the game goes,” Schmid said. “It’s got to be the right game to put him in for his first game back. Not one where a game is turning into a very physical affair like today’s was.”
To Zakuani, it doesn’t matter how or when that first appearance happens, as long as he can get back on the field.
“I just want to play football,” he said from his locker at CenturyLink Field, where he not long before answered questions as one of the best rising talents in Major League Soccer. “When that day comes it will be great.”