Seattle's Zakuani plays 1st official match: "I really feel close"

Steve Zakuani - June 1, 2012

Photo Credit: 
SoundersFC.com

TUKWILA, Wash. — The road to a full recovery still has a ways to go, but Steve Zakuani’s destination is now at least in sight.

The Seattle Sounders midfielder logged 45 minutes in Friday’s Reserve League loss to Vancouver, marking his most palpable step toward returning to the first team since he suffered a horrific leg break on April 22, 2011. Zakuani showed flashes of his old form, nearly scored a goal and popped back up from his first bona fide tackle.

“Forty-five minutes felt like 90 minutes, but it was good,” Zakuani said afterward. “I mean I was just happy. Every completed pass felt great. Every time I was able to run and turn, I felt good. I was just happy to be out there. I think I should've scored, but I will take that. A year ago, I would've given you anything to miss a chance.”

Zakuani’s opportunity to put a real punctuation on his return came late in the first half when Sounders goalkeeper Andrew Weber sent a long pass toward the Whitecaps’ box. Zakuani was able to run under it, got position between two defenders and attempted to chip Vancouver goalkeeper Brad Knighton, but didn’t get it quite high enough.

WATCH: Steve Zakuani interview

“I should've scored it,” Zakuani said. “I didn't put enough and he touched it, but, hey, it happened. A year ago I was over there jogging with Randy [Noteboom], our trainer, at 2 mph, so I'll take it."

Prior to the game, Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid indicated that the plan was to let Zakuani determine how long he’d play. The hope was that he could go a full half, but Schmid suggested they were mentally prepared to take out Zakuani after 20 to 35 minutes.

It represented the winger's first action in an official match for Seattle after appearances in scrimmages against Gonzaga and an exhibition pitting the Sounders Academy vs. Sounders U-23s.

“Obviously we feel he’s made progress again from the last time we were looking at possibly playing him,” Schmid said, alluding to the Sounders’ last Reserve League game when Zakuani pulled himself out the day before. “This is a measuring stick, just like the physical tests are a measuring stick, this is one for himself and us to see how he’s going to do now against competition where gloves are off.”

Playing as a forward — and rarely venturing farther back than midfield — Zakuani showed some of the footwork and short bursts of speed that were his hallmark moves. The longer runs, which became another one of his signatures, will have to wait, but that’s currently of secondary importance.

“The last four weeks I've made huge, huge, huge steps forward,” Zakuani said. “Hopefully these next four weeks go the same way, because I feel great. I really feel close. I know I'm not 100 percent, obviously, but speed-wise, all that stuff is coming back.”

The next step is clearly the biggest. While there were times in the last 13 months that Zakuani doubted he’d ever play in another MLS game, he now knows that day is getting close.

“It's coming really soon,” he said. “I'm not going to wait until I feel like 100 percent — how I did before — until I play. That's not going to get me anywhere. I feel like as soon as I feel I can get in and contribute, if it's 10 minutes there, 15 minutes there, I'll be talking to Sigi and see what I can do.

“I need more games like this because that's the only way I'm going to get it back. That's the only way. Training is good, but I need more games. Getting that taste just makes me hungry to get the real thing.”

Jeremiah Oshan covers the Seattle Sounders for MLSsoccer.com and SB Nation.