500 days have come and gone since Steve Zakuani last started an MLS match.
In that time, the Sounders FC has played 75 matches across league play, the US Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League without Zakuani taking up his role on the left wing where he had become one of the most promising young talents in Major League Soccer in his first 64 matches in the league.
On Sunday, in Frisco, Texas, he was announced in the starting lineup for the first time since fracturing his right tibia and fibula on April 22, 2011, after a tackle from Colorado Rapids midfielder Brian Mullan that left Mullan suspended 15 games. Zakuani took time to heal the broken bones, but the recovery was slowed by compartment syndrome, which affected Zakuani’s sensation in his lower leg and foot.
It didn’t take long for the 24-year-old speedster to show that he wasn’t far from the form that had him considered among the top five young players in the league before the injury.
In the 20th minute, he took a pass from Christian Tiffert on the left side. He took three soft touches with his right foot, then exploded past defender Zach Loyd to the endline where he sped a left-footed ball past two Dallas defenders to Mauro Rosales at the far post for the goal.
He ran to the corner with Rosales and the smile said it all for someone who had worked so hard to get back to the level that had him riding high in MLS.
“I’ve been waiting. I’ve been ready. I feel like I’ve been training and I’m just waiting for my chance. When Sigi told me I was starting and how we were going to play, I was excited,” Zakuani said after playing 65 minutes in Seattle’s 1-1 draw with FC Dallas. “It’s behind me now. That’s the final check and now I’m good.”
Zakuani had 10 goals and six assists in 2010 and was looking to build on those totals in 2011. After an off-season training stint with Everton of England’s Premiership, he had two goals and two assists in five matches before suffering the career-threatening injury.
Since returning to game action, Zakuani had played in two MLS matches off the bench, totaling just ten minutes. He also appeared in three MLS reserve league matches, scoring twice in his third match on August 19 against the LA Galaxy.
Sunday marked another milestone in that long journey back and his teammates were happy to be there to support him.
“It was great to see him back with the team and on a good level,” Rosales said. “He was working very hard to come back and you could see the frustration with him a few months ago when he couldn’t be the best player that he really wanted to be. Now we’re very happy for him. We’ll have to keep supporting him to come back to the level he wants.”
The assist in the 20th minute wasn’t Zakuani’s only good chance. In the 64th minute he had another burst up the left side, but by the time he got into the box on a ball from Fredy Montero, he didn’t have enough energy left to put the shot away and Kevin Hartman came up with the easy save.
That burst was just what Sounders fans had grown used to in their first two years watching Zakuani patrol the left wing.
“Steve shows that he still has that explosion, the ability to beat people. As he gains confidence hopefully those kind of opportunities will occur more often in the game,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said. “He’s shown that he can still do it. Now it’s just a matter of gaining game fitness and the ability to do that on a repetitive level.”
The Sounders return home to face Chivas USA on Saturday and if Zakuani doesn’t play in that match, he is likely to see minutes in a reserve match on Sunday. However he is used, Zakuani is just happy to be back a part of the group and vows to keep putting in the work to again be a force for the Sounders down the stretch.
“I’m just going to have to keep training and training to get my sharpness back again. The run I made, before I got injured I could have made that run 10 times. My fitness was really good and my goal is to be able to do that run a few times each half,” he said. “That’s what I bring to the team. I just need to play my role. September should be a very good month for us and then we’ll be pushing on into the playoffs. I just want to be there to play my role.”