No. 1 draft choice Steve Zakuani got his soccer career back on track at Akron, after he had been released by Arsenal.
RENTON — The most devastating news of his young life came in the most impersonal form.
Steve Zakuani and his father, Mao, excitedly opened the letter sent to them from Arsenal, the football club for whom he had been playing as a member of its youth team.
That letter had the power to dictate the 15-year-old’s future. It would tell him whether he would stay at Arsenal, or enter the unknown.
This was his dream team. He lived just around the corner from Highbury, Arsenal’s former hallowed grounds, and Zakuani was expecting to stay. He thought he had done enough to impress his bosses.
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But the letter, as cold as a foreclosure note, told Zakuani and his dad that Arsenal was cutting the number of players it was promoting from 15 to eight and the young goal scorer would not be invited back.
“It was painful,” Zakuani said after a Seattle Sounders FC practice this week.
It hurt so badly, he felt his love for the game oozing out of him like blood from a wound. He lost his passion. Wasn’t sure he wanted to continue with his football career.
“I think my dad was as devastated as I was,” said Zakuani, who was 4 when his father moved the family from Congo to London. “He probably wanted me to succeed even more than I did. The dream was his as much as it was mine.
“But after Arsenal, I didn’t really want to play. I wasn’t pushing myself. I think it was hard for him to see me lose the passion I had. I continued to play for some small club teams, but it was just more of a case of playing to please my dad than to please myself.”
And, in the midst of Zakuani’s malaise, in 2003, he crashed his motorcycle on one of London’s choked streets, tearing the ACL in his right knee, another setback that seemed to be telling him he wasn’t meant to play the game.
“The accident and the rehab took a lot out of me, going back and forth to the hospital on the tube with my mom,” he said. “I began making plans for an education, or finding a job. It’s a good thing I didn’t go fully in that direction because now everything’s worked out.”
Zakuani’s mother, Cecile, told him that when one door closes, another one usually opens. He returned to competitive soccer, playing for the Independent Football Academy and was spotted by then-Akron University assistant coach Ryan Higginbotham, who was scouting one of Zakuani’s teammates.
“There’s another player on this team who might become the best player in college soccer,” Higginbotham told Akron coach Caleb Porter.
Akron offered Zakuani a scholarship and saved his career.
“[Porter] worked me hard to help me reach my dreams,” said Zakuani, whose older brother Gabriel is a veteran of the English leagues. “It’s all happened quicker than I thought it would.”
Last year, Zakuani led the nation in goals (20) and points (47). In a 4-3 win over Ohio State, he had two goals and two assists.
Porter remembers walking into the stadium at Ohio State with Zakuani, a voracious reader of books on history and leadership, and seeing Zakuani notice the grounds were named after Jesse Owens.
“I saw this twinkle in his eye,” Porter said. “I could tell that playing in Jesse Owens Stadium was important to him and I knew he was going to have a special game.”
Zakuani says the outburst was the best game of his college career. One of the witnesses to that performance was Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid, who eventually would make Zakuani the first pick in the MLS draft.
“The momentum in that game swung back and forth between Ohio State and Akron,” Schmid said. “And every time it swung toward Ohio State, Steve sort of took his team on his back and came up with a play, and that really impressed me.”
Zakuani, 20, was named Soccer America’s College Player of the Year, only the second sophomore to win the award. Now, the Sounders expect him to make an immediate impact in their inaugural MLS season.
“He still has a lot to learn, and that’s the scary thing,” Porter said. “He’s good now, but this is the tip of the iceberg. He’s an incredible talent, but he’s still got so much room to grow. He’s the best player I’ve ever seen in college running at people off the dribble. That’s still his bread and butter, and it will always be a strength.
“But he had to learn more. He needed to learn to be more complete. He needed to be better with his back to the goal, better in the air, learn how to move off the ball and create space for himself. Those are still areas he needs to improve in. But with his skills and his work ethic and because he’s a very mature kid, I think the sky’s the limit.”
This opportunity is everything Zakuani and his father always wanted. Sounders FC has reawakened his dream.
Zakuani is a professional footballer, just the way it was planned, when he was a teenager in London, before the letter arrived, before the motorcycle crashed, when his passion to play the game first burned like ore.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org