Steve Zakuani worked his whole life to be a professional soccer player and in an instant nearly lost it all.
On April 22, 2011, Colorado Rapids midfielder Brian Mullan came in hard on a tackle that fractured the tibia and fibula in Zakuani’s right leg. That night, he had surgery to repair the fracture, but he would need two more surgeries because of Compartment Syndrome, which nearly led to the amputation of his lower leg.
In the subsequent months of rehab, Zakuani strived to get back on the field, but there were many baby steps along the way. First, he hoped to regain feeling in his foot and control of his toes.
On Saturday night at CenturyLink Field, he took a giant step forward when he subbed on for Mauro Rosales in the 86th minute. Those few minutes of action in front of the 39,060 in attendance and the national television audience showed a glimpse of the work Zakuani had done in the 15 months since he was carted off the field at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
The moments after the final whistle sounded on Seattle’s 2-1 victory showed everything anyone needed to know about the character of Steve Zakuani.
He and Mullan, who had not spoken since the incident, met just outside the center circle and shared a hug and a few words. Then, as Mullan started to walk away, Zakuani called him back and traded jerseys with him.
“I’ve said from Day 1 I had no issues with him. I had forgiven him a long time ago. There was no problems, but I think it was good to have that public moment for closure,” Zakuani said. “I have a long road ahead of me still in terms of just getting back to playing consistently and consistently well. So that’s good. He takes my shirt home. I’ll take his shirt home, and I think that chapter’s closed.”
The anticipation of Zakuani’s return elevated to a new level when he was included on Seattle’s bench on June 20 against Sporting Kansas City. In a physical contest, Zakuani’s number was never called by Sigi Schmid.
On Saturday, Schmid summoned Zakuani in the 84th minute and when he removed his practice top to get ready to enter the match, the crowd quickly realized that they were about to bear witness to a memorable moment. The cheers built when he crouched at midfield, the fourth official holding up the substitute sign signaling Zakuani would replace Mauro Rosales.
Then, his appearance was officially announced to the crowd and the ovation reached levels reserved for only the greatest of instances at CenturyLink Field.
“I’ve been playing 11 years of soccer and that’s the loudest I’ve ever heard a stadium,” said forward Eddie Johnson, who scored his team-leading eighth goal on what proved to be the game-winner.
Zakuani, too, was overcome by the response.
“I am honestly overwhelmed. I tried to visualize what that moment would be like for almost a year. It was something I can't describe,” he said. “Those fans are something else, and I think that they outdid themselves tonight. I am emotional obviously and it is a great emotional check mark in my mind. I am also happy the team won. It is a great night for the Sounders organization all around.”
The magical moment was almost called off though.
As Zakuani awaited a stoppage to replace Rosales, Omar Cummings appeared to equalize on a ball from Jeff Larentowicz. However, the linesman’s flag was raised and Cummings was whistled offside.
If the goal had been allowed, Schmid admitted afterward that he would have been left with an interesting decision.
“I might have sat on it for a second longer as well,” Schmid said. “I’m glad the goal didn’t count. That would have been a shame for us not to have won the game tonight because I thought on the whole we were the better team. But I just felt good things were going to happen.”
Now after passing a giant milestone, Zakuani can shift his focus toward returning to the form of the player who at 22 years old had ten goals and six assists in 2010 and looked poised to surpass that success with two goals and two assists through five games in 2011 before he was injured in his sixth match.
That could mean an appearance as soon as Wednesday in the US Open Cup semifinal against Chivas USA, though Schmid also mentioned the possibility of loaning him to a lower division team to get him more playing time.
“Everything is just one week at a time. He continues to work. We’ll see what the situation is Wednesday, whether that’s a game that we think fits him,” Schmid said. “There’s still a possibility of us maybe loaning him, so he can get some more minutes in a period of time. But right now he’s got to be full in training and continuing to show what he can do in training every day.”
He has already provided a tremendous emotional boost to his teammates and fans and will surely increase his contribution as the second half of the season rolls on.
“He’s feeling good and he’s only going to help us out as an attacking option in the second part of the season,” Johnson said.
With the win, the Sounders improved to 8-5-6 on the season, moving even with the Vancouver Whitecaps for the third spot in the Western Conference standings. Now with Zakuani back in the mix and other players regaining form and fitness, they are looking more and more like the contenders that started the season with so much promise.
The Sounders will meet Chivas at Starfire on Wednesday in a match that will be broadcast on the radio on 97.3 KIRO FM and online in a web stream at SoundersFC.com. They will return to MLS action on Sunday in another nationally televised game on ESPN against the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena.