TUKWILA, Wash. – To those in attendance at Starfire on Sunday as the Sounders topped the LA Galaxy, 3-2, in a MLS Reserve League match, Steve Zakuani’s brace may as well have been a banner flying high over the city of Seattle that Zakuani is much closer to the player that was among the best in Major League Soccer before a broken leg kept him out of action for nearly 15 months.
The same can be said for the over 55,000 that were on hand for a 2-0 Sounders victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps FC at CenturyLink Field on Saturday night.
To Zakuani, though, the two goals he scored were meaningless beyond helping the Sounders to a victory in the reserve league.
“It was just about scoring for today, not for anything else,” Zakuani said after playing in his third reserve league game of the season. “I just wanted to score to help the team today.”
For the second straight weekend, Zakuani played a full 90 minutes in the reserve league as he works his way back into the regular rotation for playing time in a crowded Sounders FC midfield that was made even more crowded by the addition of Mario Martinez, who made his first appearance for Seattle in the reserve match on Sunday.
In the first half, Zakuani and Martinez played interchangeably between the left wing and as a second striker off of Sammy Ochoa, who would eventually score the game-winning goal in the 90th minute. Playing with Martinez for the first time and adjusting to the pitch at Starfire and the physical play of the Galaxy, Zakuani wasn’t pleased with his first half performance.
His second half was much different though, as he took on defenders with a frequency reminiscent of his play early in the 2011 season when he had two goals and two assists in five starts before suffering the season-ending injury. Eventually, he would get his first goal since coming back for his first reserve league appearance on June 2 when he raced out on a counterattack, took a pass from Mike Seamon and went 1v1 with LA goalkeeper Brian Rowe, putting it past him with his right foot and inside the far post for the goal. Later, he would add a second when he redirected a ball in at the far post off a header from Sammy Ochoa.
Regardless of the goals, Zakuani would prefer to play a full game the way he played in the second half than to have one bad half and another where he scores.
“I rather would have had a full 90-minute performance and not scored than to have just 45 minutes. The first half wasn’t good. The second half was a lot better,” Zakuani said. “It’s good to get the goals for confidence, but I’m more focused on getting my touch right. That means a lot more to me at this stage. Goals will come.”
Sounders FC assistant coach Ezra Hendrickson, who coaches the reserve league games for the Sounders, was impressed with the Zakuani he saw on the field in the second half as well. He also thinks Zakuani is very close to regaining the form of the dominating left wing that exploded for 10 goals and six assists in 2010 and earned an invitation to train with Everton in England that off-season.
“I think before the injury he was a top 10 player in this league. I think he can get back to that. It’s a process and now he has to get his fitness,” Hendrickson said. “Being on the wings when you have to go up and down, that takes away from your offensive game and that’s what Steve brings. Once we get him in shape and he’s back to full fitness he’s going to get back to the sharpness he had before the injury.”
The sharpness is the key ingredient for Zakuani. The more he plays, the better his fitness will get and the more that sharpness will emerge and Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid will be able to include him in the midfield rotation.
“Games like today help my confidence and help show that maybe I’m not too far off,” Zakuani said.
After the match, Schmid put his arm around Zakuani and had a short conversation with the 24-year-old midfielder and had a few words.
“He said he likes the guy he saw in the second half,” Zakuani said. “I agree.”