PORTLAND, Ore. – There have been a lot of “what-ifs” and “could-bes” surrounding Steve Zakuani over the past three years.
What if the former No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft never fractured his right tibia and fibula in just his third professional season? Could he be one of the most dangerous attackers in the league once again? If only he could get healthy and return to the form that saw him score 10 goals and notch six assists for the Seattle Sounders in 2010.
Those questions persist.
But now that Zakuani finds himself in a new situation, ironically with the Sounders’ most bitter rivals, the Portland Timbers, he feels he can start providing answers very soon.
“We’ve all had to dig in and work,” Zakuani said of his rehabilitation process from two sports hernia surgeries, unrelated to his 2011 broken leg, in a conversation with MLSsoccer.com. “With injuries like this, or with any injury, there’s a long layoff. There are days where it’s really difficult and there are setbacks, but through those we just had to push through it and keep trying to come back. … It’s been done right since day one of coming here.”
Zakuani has come on as a second-half substitute in both of the Timbers' regular-season matches, his first action since October of last year (when he subbed in for Seattle against the Timbers). Those two appearances amount to less than 35 minutes of field time, but it represents a huge step in the next chapter of his career.
“When I came into training, I didn’t think I’d be back in time,” Zakuani said. “So to at least play a part … was important for my confidence. Now with that behind me, I can look forward to keep progressing and improving and just be ready for when the time comes again.”
His inclusion also adds an important piece for head coach Caleb Porter. With winger Rodney Wallace out until this summer as he recovers from a surgery of his own, Porter has been forced to use newly acquired forward Gastón Fernández in that spot and start 23-year-old striker Maximiliano Urruti to underwhelming results – just two Timbers goals in two games.
Porter said after Sunday’s 1-1 draw with the Chicago Fire that the “chemistry is better” when Zakuani plays on the wing and Fernández is up top. That was the formation after Zakuani came on for Urruti in the 61st minute, and Fernández netted a late equalizer.
“He’s a game-changer,” Porter said of Zakuani, who he noted is “100-percent healthy” and was only being held back until he is fully fit. “He’s a guy that can bring some 1 v. 1 penetration. We didn’t have that last year. [Darlington] Nagbe does that at times, but [Zakuani] can unlock teams 1 v. 1. It’s a different dimension.”
Having switched sides in one of the league's most heated rivalries and now reunited with his former University of Akron coach in Porter, Zakuani has no ill feelings toward the Sounders. After making only eight appearances for Seattle in the final year of his contract, Zakuani said he fully expected to return to the team in 2014. But during contract negotiations, the two sides “just ran out of time,” according to Zakuani, and the Timbers selected him in the offseason Re-Entry Draft.
“I played for Seattle for five years and had a really, really great time there, obviously,” Zakuani said. “Drafted out of college there, and it was my first professional team; that was tremendous. But at the same time, things happened, and I’ve ended up in Portland now, and I’m able to now take that same mentality, where I wanted to do well for Seattle, and bring that to Portland.”
Zakuani also said he has been helped by his relationship with Porter, which goes back eight years, and by his reunion with former Akron teammates and friends Nagbe, Michael Nanchoff and Ben Zemanski. That chemistry has aided his off-the-field transitions but carries over to the field as well.
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“I will say Caleb does play a big role in that, because he sets the tone for the whole team,” Zakuani said. “It’s kind of the direction he sets, the vision he sets, that we’re all buying into. It’s a vision to bring a championship to the city, and that affects any player. And I’m no different.”
Dan Itel covers the Timbers for MLSsoccer.com.