SEATTLE – One of the favorite pastimes of the typical North American soccer fan is figuring out just which of the guys in the “other” sports would have made great soccer players.
Barry Sanders, for one, always comes up – balance and agility will always be coveted traits for a soccer player. Wayne Gretzky for his vision and ability to slow the game down. Chris Paul’s playmaking flair, explosive first step and toughness.
“What if…” these fans ask, imagining if the national team (US or Canada, your choice) was made up of the very best athletes either country has to offer. What would that team look like?
We might have gotten a glimpse of it on Wednesday night when Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku stepped onto the CenturyLink Field pitch and seared himself into the consciousness of everyone in attendance as he led his side to a 4-2 win over the Sounders.
HIGHLIGHTS: SEA vs. CFC
Lakaku, who’s just turned 19, is a middle linebacker playing center forward. He’s a rugged two-guard who’d get to the rim every time he put the ball on the floor. Put a baseball bat in his hands, and he’d end up getting drafted as a five-tool player just on potential.
He is a freak.
“He is awesome, he tore us apart,” Sounders forward Sammy Ochoa told FutbolMLS.com, still in awe of Lukaku’s first-half brace. “I had never seen anything like it.”
The big Belgian has been on everyone’s radar since 2009, when he made his debut for Anderlecht (subbing on, coincidentally enough, for current San Jose defender Victor Bernardez). He scored 33 times in 73 appearances for the Mauves before earning a transfer to the Blues for anything from $20 to $30 million, depending upon which source you believe.
Expectations, naturally, are high. He didn’t meet them in his first year at Stamford Bridge, failing to register a goal in eight appearances. So starting out year two with a brace in the team’s first preseason game was a real boost.
"It's my first double for the club," Lukaku said in the mixed zone after the game. "Even if it's a friendly, helps you in confidence. We won and that is what matters as it was our first game as champions of Europe. "
Ah yes, the small matter of defending the UEFA Champions League title. Chelsea are the European champs for the first time in club history, and Lukaku has quite an act to follow. He’s been dubbed in more than one tabloid as the successor to legendary striker Didier Drogba, who’s now plying his trade in China.
Those are big shoes to fill, even for someone with the talent that Lukaku possesses. Drogba himself didn’t blossom until age 24 – soccer, after all, is more about the speed of the game in your head than in your legs. It was evident against the Sounders that Lukaku still has much work to do on that first part, since he was as invisible in possession as he was devastating in the open field.
But the hope is that will come with time. Lukaku, like so many kids we see in North America, was born an amazing athlete. Now he’s working on becoming an amazing soccer player. It will be a process.
"I've had difficult moments, but one has to be patient, especially if you play in a club like Chelsea," the player expressed. "Now we start from zero and it's another mentality. Now I have to fight for my spot in the first XI."
Additional reporting for this story by FutbolMLS editor Edgar Acero.