By THOMAS FLOYD
Steve Zakuani sees no shame in biding his time. If he’s learned nothing else over the past year and a half, it is the art of patience and perspective.
The Seattle Sounders midfielder knows what he is capable of. Pace. Skill. Confidence. He showed it all in his breakout 2010 campaign, notching 10 goals and six assists.
Zakuani also knows where he was 18 months ago. Dazed. Distraught. Broken. One could see the agony as he was taken of the Colorado Rapids’ home field on a stretcher, the victim of misguided frustration and poor timing.
It is why he is fine with the sparing minutes he has received this season, making just seven league appearances. The broken right leg that ultimately sidelined him for more than 14 months robbed him of many things, but his spirit persisted. Still does.
“I’m not expecting to hit my top height this season, but that was never my intention,” Zakuani said. “My intention was to come back this year and get my feet wet again, and then have a really strong preseason and really be flying next season. So that’s still the plan. I’m pretty close right now, but it’ll take some time to really reach the level I had before.”
That level was an electrifying one. Using his speed and dribbling prowess, the London-bred University of Akron product quickly established himself as one of the league’s most compelling young talents after going No. 1 in the 2009 SuperDraft. For a technically oriented Sounders squad, his dynamic runs inside from the left flank added diversity to the club’s attack.
But when Rapids midfielder Brian Mullan snapped Zakuani’s tibia and fibula with a cracking slide tackle in April 2011, it all was put on hold.
“You never want to see something like that happen to anybody in any sport,” Seattle midfielder Andy Rose said. “It was a horrible, horrible thing that he’s had to endure, and for him to come through something like that, mentally more than anything, is just really, really impressive.”
To Zakuani, the incident firmly is in the past. No sense dwelling on it. It was a mindset on display when he logged his first minutes since the injury in a 2-1 win over Colorado on July 7, securing closure by swapping jerseys with Mullan in an emotional postgame exchange.
It is hard to think of a better feel-good moment in MLS this season, though when pressed, one also could make a case for Zakuani’s long-awaited return to the score sheet last month — a far-post finish in Seattle’s 2-1 loss to San Jose at CenturyLink Field.
“For me, it was the most important goal I’ve scored in my career, or probably ever will score in my career, in terms of what it did for my confidence,” said Zakuani, who noted he still would have traded the tally for a win. “It’s been a long time coming. I had dreamt of that moment.”
Zakuani’s positive approach has rubbed off on his teammates. Although his contributions on the field this season may seem marginal, his impact on the Seattle locker room has been anything but.
“Steve comes in with a smile every day,” Rose said. “To train as hard as he does and as well as he does, knowing where he could be right now if that didn’t happen, it’s definitely an inspiring thing.”
While Zakuani is unsure what kind of role coach Sigi Schmid will ask him to fill in the playoffs, he is confident he doesn’t want to relive last year’s “massive underachievement.”
The 24-year-old recalls all too well watching from a suite as Seattle’s second-leg comeback fell short and the club was ousted in the conference semifinals by Real Salt Lake — the same team the Sounders will face next weekend to open their 2012 postseason endeavors.
“This city deserves a deep playoff run from this team,” Zakuani said. “At this point, I feel ready to contribute. Whenever Sigi decides to call upon me, I’ll be ready to go.”
On Wednesday, Zakuani made a bid for more playing time by burying a composed strike during Seattle’s 3-1 win over Honduran side Marathon in CONCACAF Champions League play.
However influential his role in the playoffs turns out to be, Zakuani isn’t getting caught up in his coach’s decisions. No, he just wants to ensure that when he does step under the lights, he takes it all in.
That much he can control.
“When you’re playing in Seattle, which for me is the No. 1 environment in this country, obviously it’s unbelievable,” Zakuani said. “So when I go out there, I’ve always appreciated it, but maybe I’m more aware of why I should appreciate it — because it can be taken away.”