Steve Zakuani was fast. That was the scouting report. Not just “fast” but really fast. His speed enabled him to play a wide attacking style of play which made him unique in MLS. His technical ability was phenomenal, allowing the affectionately named “Zak” to tip-toe along the touchline before slipping by the defenders with a deft touch or two (or three). Opponents were unfamiliar with his type of ability, giving him a great advantage in the run-of-play. Fullbacks looked silly when he came streaking down the left and beat them off the dribble before lofting in a beautiful cross or unleashing a thundering shot. Speed kills.
However, Zakuani’s defense was never stellar, and he frequently had trouble getting back on the counter even with his speed. While his offensive talent was undeniable, he was frequently beaten defensively. But his speed masked his deficiencies and highlighted his incredible strengths.
The past tense is important when talking about Steve Zakuani. Sadly, MLS fans have hardly seen him as he has barely played the last two years after a gruesome injury.
In the first six games of 2011, Zakuani had 2 assists and 2 goals. He was well on his way to surpassing the team leading 10 goals he had scored in 2010, tied with the same Fredy Montero who is now the top goal scorer in Portugal and one of the top scorers in any European league this season. His potential was great, and Zakuani appeared well on his way to being one of the best players on the Seattle Sounders and in possible consideration for MLS Best XI in the future.
But then came the match against the Colorado Rapids.
Three minutes into the game, Brian Mullan rushed in on a challenge and brought Zakuani to ground. The tackle broke his tibia and fibula. He would not play for another 15 months before returning in late 2012 to score an equalizer against San Jose Earthquakes. Zakuani played in the first six games of the 2013 season before suffering a sports hernia. Two successful surgeries later, he returned to the pitch in October before being shut down for the season after yet another injury, his contract with the Sounders up.
However, his career is not a “failure” by any means. Zakuani is more than just a footballer trying to regain his past skills and return to what made him the number one pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft; he is also a caring, hopeful individual, and that is what has endeared him to the fans in Seattle.
Zakuani has been through so much, worked uncomplainingly through countless hours of rehab and setbacks, and gifted a great deal back to the Seattle community all while maintaining a positive attitude both on and off the pitch. He will be missed by not just the fans but by citizens alike. Zakuani had a rough early career, suffering a leg injury at 15, before—in his words—“falling in with the wrong crowd.” He started the organization Kingdom Hope to “bridge between talent and actually making it.” Zakuani wants to help and engage in the community. This is not just an athlete marking time but one who will put down roots at the deepest level.
But despite all his positive attributes, he was expensive for someone who contributed so little on the field the last two years, and he was not re-signed by the Sounders and so automatically entered the MLS Reentry Draft (RED). The Portland Timbers broke the hearts of Seattle Sounders fans for the second time in the last two months by signing Zakuani.
There are many reasons for picking up Zakuani. Caleb Porter was his college coach at Akron. Darlington Nagbe is his best friend. Portland may actually be a better fit for Zakuani than Seattle; it may even be his preference for those reasons. Timbers fans should be hopeful. With Rodney Wallace out for months, Zakuani could step in to take his place and—if he is the Zak of old—keep it. Zakuani will probably never be able to realize the potential he had before his grisly injury—those types of injuries will always rob a player of some of his athleticism—but he can still be a valuable contributor even after a series of secondary injuries.
Timbers fans anticipate that “Zak” will be able to return to the form he displayed, ironically, against Portland last season. In March, he put in the cross for Eddie Johnson’s score and in the October match at Jeld-Wen Field he rammed the equalizing goal off the crossbar. You could see what might happen if he was able to stay healthy. Portland hopes he does and then scores in a Cascadia Cup match against Seattle; Sounders fans dread the day that happens. Zak’s shattered promise of potential has given the Sounders another taste of heartbreak courtesy of the Timbers.
This signing also means that Sounders fans can no longer be happy if or when Zakuani returns to form. Zakuani did not go to the Eastern Conference—he will be playing for the Enemy. At best, it will be with bitter joy as they watch him become one of the top players on the Timbers. At worst, well, it will be with downright hatred as the Former Future racks up the points.
The first time he walks into CenturyLink wearing a darker shade of green, he will be greeted with applause and cheers, perhaps in a sickly sweet and sad tribute to the prodigal son returning home. The second time, he will get the same reception as any other player “from down south”. This is still a rivalry, as bitter and glorious as any other. Zakuani switching sides is not so much a betrayal but an acknowledgement that sometimes things do not work out as you would hope and sometimes both sides need a change for each to succeed. Hopefully Timbers fan realize what a good player—and more importantly wonderful person—they are getting. With this one selection in the RED, the Portland Timbers have further charged the rivalry against the Seattle Sounders.
I love Cascadia and cannot wait for the 2014 season to begin.