By JASON MITCHELL
SEATTLE – Saturday night at CenturyLink Field saw three different players score goals, but none of them were the true star of a special evening.
The night belonged to Steve Zakuani.
The earliest hint the London-born midfielder might be back in the 18 for the first time since June 20 and just the second time since breaking his leg in April of 2011 came via an early-afternoon tweet from Zakuani: “Wake up on a high, and then I cross my heart and hope to fly,” it read.
Zakuani, in his fourth year out of Akron, appeared on Seattle’s bench when the teams released their lineups about a half-hour before the match. He entered the game in the 86th minute to a full-throated roar that waned only as the sellout crowd began chanting his name.
“I’m honestly overwhelmed,” said Zakuani. “I’ve been trying to visualize what that moment would be like for over a year. And it’s something I can’t describe. Those fans are something else. I think they outdid themselves again tonight. It was so loud. I’m emotional, obviously.”
Asked if he had a chance to think about how far he’d come since rolling on the pitch in Colorado those many months ago, Zakuani said he tried to absorb it all as he checked into the match.
“There honestly was a time I thought I’d never play football again,” he said. “Honestly, there was a period where I thought, ‘I’m never gonna play again.’ And to be back there (waiting to check in), was for me the biggest achievement. I just took it in. I just said, ‘No matter how it goes, don’t try to do anything. Just enjoy yourself. Tonight is about crossing that white line and being happy that you did it. And taking it in.'”
After the match, Zakuani exchanged jerseys with Brian Mullan, the midfielder whose tackle broke Zakuani’s leg.
“I’ve said from Day One I have no issues with him,” said Zakuani. “I had forgiven him a long time ago, and there were no problems. But I think it was good to have that public moment for closure, and I think he can go on with his career, and I’m going to try to do the same with my career. I have a long road ahead of me still, in terms of just getting back to playing consistently, and consistently well. So that’s good. He takes my shirt home, I take his shirt home, and I think that chapter is closed.”
It was an emotional capstone to the Sounders’ best performance in some time.
Offseason acquisition Eddie Johnson delivered the goal that ultimately gave the Sounders (8-5-6) their first win since a May 9 tilt at FC Dallas.
Johnson’s 64th-minute header off a beautiful Mauro Rosales cross gave the Sounders the 2-0 lead they would need to stave off a late Colorado surge. It was the second assist of the night for Rosales, who pressured Colorado relentlessly throughout the evening. Johnson, meanwhile, has notched five of his team-leading eight goals in Seattle’s last six matches.
Despite playing its third match in eight days, Colorado (7-10-1) responded well to the deficit and nearly equalized.
“The team started taking more risks,” said Rapids head coach Oscar Pareja of his team’s late play, “and we threw (out) a couple guys that had fresh legs, and that helped us. It’s been difficult for the boys to play three games in almost a week. So I think the guys who came from the bench gave us that spark and then I thought the game was better for us in those (last) 25 minutes.”
Midfielder Martin Rivero nearly put the Rapids on the board in the 74th minute with a skipping close-range shot that Seattle goalkeeper Bryan Meredith handled nicely. But just five minutes later Meredith found himself helpless as substitute Omar Cummings volleyed in a delightful far-post cross from defender Luis Zapata, pulling the Rapids within a goal.
Jeff Larentowicz appeared to draw Colorado even with five minutes to play in regulation, but Rivero was ruled offside. If he was offside, it was by a hair.
Rivero glimpsed a last chance in stoppage time, but the Argentine midfielder skimmed a wide-open shot over the crossbar.
“We didn’t get out of the game with the results we wanted,” concluded Pareja, “but we gave too many corners today, and we ended up just paying for that.” Seattle earned 10 corners in the match.
From the opening moments, Seattle passed with a creativity and crispness lacking for the better part of two months, earning a corner kick off a promising Rosales cross in just the second minute and a free kick from a dangerous spot in the fifth. Throughout the night the Sounders would reverse the point of attack, dart after well-weighted through-balls, and counter with both purpose and ferocity.
That quality of play led to a Rosales corner in the 52nd minute, a bending corner that a poorly marked Alvaro Fernandez headed home for the first goal of the match. Fernandez found himself one-on-one with Colorado goalkeeper Matt Pickens just a couple minutes later, but his long chip shot drifted well wide.
Colorado managed to win the possession battle, but could do little with it until late, threatening rarely and mostly with half-chances on the way to being outshot 14-6. Seattle centerbacks Jeff Parke and Patrick Ianni shackled Conor Casey all match.
A 25th-minute Rivero shot into the side-netting was about as good as it got for Colorado until Larentowicz fired a rocket from well outside the box near the hour-mark, forcing Meredith into a diving save.
For the second time this season the Rapids visited Seattle having lost three of their last four matches and desperate for a win. And for the second time this season they left town without a point. Colorado fell 1-0 to a streaking Seattle side in mid-April.
The loss leaves the Rapids with just three points from their last five matches in what has been an erratic year. They still hold the fifth spot in the Western Conference and could yet challenge with a strong second-half of the season, although they would have to improve their dismal 2-7-0 road record.
For the Sounders, the win ends an 0-4-5 run that was the ugliest in the team’s brief history and keeps them within striking distance of Real Salt Lake (11-6-3) and San Jose (11-4-4) for the best record in the Western Conference. The victory also extends Seattle’s dominance over the Rapids to 6-1-1 (5-0-0 at home) since Sounders FC joined the league in 2009.
And despite leaking goals madly for a stretch in June, the Sounders are still tied for the league lead in goals allowed and believe first-string keeper Michael Gspurning will soon return to the pitch after missing 11-straight matches with a persistent hip injury.
And, of course, Seattle at last has its once-rising and perhaps-still-future star blazing down the left touchline again.