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Steve Zakuani cherishes chance to play against longtime friend

Saturday, Steve Zakuani had the opportunity to play against longtime friend and fellow Akron product, Timbers FC's Darlington Nagbe.

Steve Zakuani had plenty of reason to look forward to Saturday’s match against the Portland Timbers at JELD-WEN Field. 

For one, he was forced to watch the Sounders FC’s first seven meetings in the Cascadia Cup because of the injury that knocked him out of Seattle’s lineup for 15 months.

But it was also the first time he had the opportunity to play against longtime friend and fellow Akron product Darlington Nagbe.

Until Zakuani’s injury, he and Nagbe shared similar paths to success in Major League Soccer.

Both were born in Africa – Zakuani in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nagbe in Liberia – and moved to Europe in their youth.  They both wound up excelling at Akron for Caleb Porter, who will take over as head coach of the Timbers after the current season concludes for the Zips.

There, Nagbe won the Hermann Trophy for college soccer’s player of the year in 2010, while Zakuani was a finalist in 2008.  Zakuani was the top pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft by Sounders FC and two years later, Nagbe was taken with the second overall pick by Seattle’s rivals to the south, the Portland Timbers.

On Saturday, they met face-to-face in a match for the first time.

“It was great, you know.  Last year, I didn’t get to play against him, so this year it was just good seeing him out there, and getting the chance to go against him,” Nagbe said.  “It was fun.  We both had fun.”

Like Zakuani in 2010, Nagbe is having success in his second MLS season.  Zakuani was tied for the team-lead with ten goals in 2010, while Nagbe has six goals for the Timbers with still six games left on the schedule.

The success comes as no surprise to Zakuani, who has been carrying the Nagbe flag for years.

“I’ve known Darlington for a very, very long time and always said he’s a great player.  He’s maturing more and more,” Zakuani said.  “I still think he has a long way to go, because I think he has so much quality.  I was happy to, for the first time, play against him at this level.  I wish him to continue to become a good player.”

Zakuani remains close with Nagbe even four years after leaving Akron to pursue his pro career, and will be in the 22-year-old’s wedding this off-season.  They speak on the phone nearly every week and one day, he hopes to be able to share the practice field with him again.

“He’s someone I like to always look out for and I wish him to keep playing the way he’s playing right now,” Zakuani said.  “I wish maybe one day in the future we can play again together.  But at this point he is with Portland and I’m with Seattle.”

Before the duo was able to trade jerseys at the middle of the pitch at JELD-WEN Field on Saturday, Zakuani’s Sounders played to a 1-1 draw with Nagbe’s Timbers and Zakuani got his first taste of Cascadia Cup mayhem.  With 20,438 in attendance and a national network television audience on NBC, he was treated to an electric atmosphere as the two sides’ supporter sections rallied back-and-forth throughout the 90 minutes and beyond.

The competition also got fierce on the field as the Sounders fought to keep their Supporters’ Shield hopes alive while the Timbers were looking to lift the Cascadia Cup with a victory.

“The atmosphere was first class.  It was a tremendous atmosphere.  Both teams, I think, tried to win the game.  We came out to play and Portland was the same,” Zakuani said.  “Our fans always represent and it was fantastic.  We’re a little bit disappointed as you can see.  We thought we had the three points after Fredy’s great goal.  We played pretty well – it wasn’t our best offensive game, but maybe enough to sneak away with a road win.   But at this point, we can take the point and regroup from here.”

The Sounders won’t have much time to rest, as they take the field Wednesday against Marathon in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, then return home to meet the San Jose Earthquakes at CenturyLink Field on Saturday.