When the worst happened to Steve Zakuani, he didn't lash out.
He may have felt angry — must have, really — when Brian Mullan scythed him to the ground back in April. But there was no call for blood from the affable Congolese attacker, who looked like he was rounding into one of the top five players in the league before Mullan snapped his leg on April 22. There were no coded interviews about retribution, no "woe is me," just a serene acceptance of the fact that his next and biggest goal was to get healthy again.
Top 10 favorite MLS players
(per Soccer Almanac survey)
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Maybe that's why people love Steve Zakuani. And not just Sounders fans, but actual people. There's something about the kid that makes the color of his kit matter less than it should to the average fan, and the poll put together for the North American Soccer Almanac shows as much.
Zakuani finished very, very high in the Q-score poll: He is the ninth-most popular MLS player, according to respondants in our Soccer Almanac survey. That's high enough that we were left to scratch our heads here and try to figure out what it is about him that makes fans from virtually every nook and cranny of MLS supporterdom look and say, "Yeah, I can root for that."
Because Zakuani doesn't fit the mold of the typical MLS hero. He's not a US or Canadian national-teamer, nor one of the wunderkinds who've been followed via YouTube clips for years before they even kicked a ball as a pro. He has never won an MLS MVP award or a playoff game, let alone an MLS Cup.
Instead he simply burst upon the college scene in 2007, finished second in Hermann Trophy balloting in 2008 and became a mortal lock to be the No. 1 pick in the 2009 SuperDraft once he signed with the league.
From there, you probably know his story: breathtaking speed, innate one-vs.-one ability and unselfish play in the final third made him stand out almost as much in MLS as he did in college.
He was content to play a supporting role for the 2009 US Open Cup champs; he ended up playing a starring role for the sequel in 2010. He showed two years of constant, steady improvement — there were no great leaps forward, nor were there any great regressions — until the injury.
And yes, the injury no doubt engendered a certain amount of deserved sympathy. But it's the "steady improvement" that's probably at the heart of why MLS fans love Steve Zakuani.
You see, Zakuani seemed to play the way we all promised we would play if only we had the talent. We've all looked at guys who had the skill but not the will, sneered and said, "Man, if that were me, there's no way I'd loaf around like that. There's no way I'd drink too much, drive too fast, argue with my coaches or piss off my teammates. There's no way I'd let that talent go to waste."
In Zakuani, the fanbase saw someone who has that talent and wasn't letting it go to waste for a second. He's someone who's keeping the promises we all make to ourselves in our wildest dreams.
Not only did he give his all every time he stepped on the pitch — and surely will again once he recovers — but he always seemed to be getting better.
First, it was just his speed and one-vs.-one ability, then he learned how to cross. Then he learned how to draw defenders out and slip a teammate through, how to play one-twos with a center forward, how to track back on defense and, finally, how to get into dangerous spots off the ball and open up the game for his team.
Underneath the smile, and the charisma, and the "Holy crap did he really just pull off that move?" skills, there's a will to improve and a dedication to his craft that speaks directly to the hearts of the game's truest fans.
That's why Steve Zakuani is beloved. We see talent all the time — we even see greatness all the time.
But talent plus greatness plus thoughtful application of hard work?
Yeah, I can root for that.
Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MLS_Analyst