“I can’t believe it’s my fifth season already,” Steve Zakuani says, his eyes widening at the thought of it. “Wow.”
It seems like just yesterday that MLS Commissioner Don Garber approached the podium at the St. Louis Convention Center and announced, “With the first pick of the first round of the 2009 MLS SuperDraft, Seattle Sounders FC select from the University of Akron, forward and member of Generation adidas, Steve Zakuani.”
At that moment – January 15, 2009 – the kid from London didn’t know what to expect from the new adventure in front of him. He had never been to Seattle, but knew he was entering a good situation.
In the days leading up to the draft, he figured he would be taken by one of three teams – Seattle, Toronto FC or the LA Galaxy. Seattle, though, was the best situation in his mind.
“That’s where I wanted to go,” Zakuani recalled. “When you go to an expansion team, you get a fair crack right away. You’re not trying to beat out established players.”
Like many have since, including Sounders FC Homegrown Player DeAndre Yedlin, Zakuani left Akron after his sophomore season.
When Akron fell in the NCAA tournament, he was still undecided about his future. A meeting with head coach Caleb Porter two days later made the decision easy.
“I don’t want to see you back here next fall,” Porter told Zakuani, noting his readiness to become a professional.
After the draft, Zakuani flew with Porter back to Akron with an overnight stop in Chicago along the way. At that point, they had been together for nine days after working together at the MLS Player Combine before the SuperDraft.
With just two days to gather his things and move out to Seattle, he quickly made the transition to the west coast, living at a hotel with many of his new teammates for several weeks before finally settling into an apartment. All without the benefit of communication, as he didn’t have a cell phone until after he got settled in Seattle.
Even still, the play on the field was a bigger adjustment for Zakuani, who had grown independent in his two years at Akron.
“Once the football part of it started, it was natural and just became more routine,” he said. “I’ve always been quite independent, so I could do that part of it, but playing with 20-25 guys who were right on my level – I knew I’d have to fight and earn my position. You have to adjust. It’s not easy. There were days when I was fine, but it took me the whole preseason to adjust to the speed of play.”
Adjust he has, too.
In his first season, he had four goals and four assists and was a finalist for the Rookie of the Year award, which went to Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez. In 2010, his 10 goals and six assists put him on the radar as one of the top young talents in Major League Soccer. Now, after two injury-shortened seasons in 2011 and 2012, he is ready to get back to that form in 2013.
The Sounders open training camp on January 21. The SuperDraft is Thursday in Indianapolis, beginning at 9 a.m. PT.