It’s hard to imagine what Seattle have done without Steve Zakuani. At the time of his injury, the left-sided midfielder was the heartbeat of the Sounders attack.
Earlier this season, he had scored twice and added two assists in six matches and looked primed to best his career-high of 10 goals from 2010. With his mixture of pace and technical ability, Zakuani was one of the few players in MLS who could regularly take a defender on one-vs.-one and beat him.
Now, Zakuani is almost five months removed from a horrific leg injury and is just starting to touch a ball again. But that’s just fine for him.
“Physically I am feeling as good as I’ve felt since the injury first happened,” Zakuani wrote on his blog last week. “This last week was a breakthrough week because I accomplished things I didn’t even plan on accomplishing.
“For example, after training on Tuesday, I decided to start dribbling the ball and taking shots at the goal. I haven’t tried to do this since the injury, or even been encouraged to do this by the doctors and trainers I’m working with, but I just felt that I’d be able to do it.”
The improvement since his first season was marked. Sometimes unable to go 90 minutes as a rookie, Zakuani added deadly goal-scoring in his sophomore season. In his limited action in 2011, he added the ability to run off the ball and combine with strikers, as shown by his April 9 goal against Chicago off a give-and-go with O’Brian White. There’s no telling what 2011 had in store for the player who had trained with Everton of the EPL prior to the season.
Since the injury, Seattle have gone 12-4-6 in MLS play, reached their third consecutive US Open Cup final and sit atop Group D of the CONCACAF Champions League with a 3-0-0 record. In Zakuani’s absence, Lamar Neagle (five goals) and Álvaro Fernández (six goals) have formed an effective tandem on the left. With Mauro Rosales dishing out 10 assists from the right side, Seattle’s offense has found the balance some believed would be lost without their 2009 No. 1 overall draft pick.
The team’s success has allowed Zakuani the peace of mind to focus on his recuperation.
Realistically, Sounders GM Adrian Hanauer says there was no chance Zakuani could have returned in 2011. The lack of pressure to rush the comeback, combined with Seattle’s strong performance without Zakuani, has helped the recovery process. According to head coach Sigi Schmid, the club is happy with the progress Zakuani is making and he acknowledges that the player is ahead of the where the doctors thought he’d be at this stage.
The Sounders are so confident of Zakuani's return to full fitness that Hanauer has made clear their desire to keep him for the long term before his contract expires at the end of the 2013 season.
Schmid said Friday that the success of Zakuani’s recovery rests on two areas: physical and psychological.
“Psychologically, a lot rests on him,” Schmid continued. “He’s been very committed to his rehab. It’s just a matter of when you step on the field again and there’s competition that you don’t worry about the thoughts of a tackle. The physical aspect is something that he’s been working on daily. We have pushed him to a point where he’s now in a two- to three-week break period, then we’ll start pushing him again.”
Although based on Zakuani's account of the recovery process, it's probably the player that's doing the pushing in this case.
Andrew Winner covers the Seattle Sounders for MLSsoccer.com.