Steve Zakuani, who feared he might never play again after suffering a devastating leg injury last April, made an emotional MLS return Saturday after a 14-month wait.
With about five minutes left in Saturday’s game, Sounders FC was nervously clinging on to a one-goal lead at home against the Colorado Rapids.
It was time, Seattle coach Sigi Schmid thought to himself.
It was time for midfielder Steve Zakuani to make his MLS return after more than 14 months of soul-testing rehabilitation from a devastating broken leg and serious complications.
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The wait — one shared leaguewide — was over.
“Tactically, was it the right decision? No,” Schmid said, “but I wanted to get Steve Zakuani on the park and get him some minutes … because it’s been a long time and it’s good for that to happen for him.”
A murmur within CenturyLink Field steadily grew in anticipation as Zakuani was called to the bench from the warm-up area behind the south goal and changed into his jersey. He received encouragement from teammates on the bench and then some final instructions from Schmid.
So what were the coach’s last words before Zakuani’s first MLS action since April 22, 2011?
“He told me to tell Andy Rose to play a little bit deeper,” the 24-year-old said with a laugh. “That was it. He didn’t give me anything. I don’t think that’s what that moment needed. He could have easily said, ‘Stay composed,’ but no. We had a game to win.”
The substitution was made in the 86th minute.
As the fourth official on the sideline lifted up a board signaling the return of No. 11, a crowd of 39,060 roared.
“I’ve been playing 11 years of soccer and that’s the loudest I’ve ever heard a stadium,” said forward Eddie Johnson.
“The eruption of the crowd was as loud as I think I’ve ever heard here,” said Schmid. “It was fantastic.”
In the final seconds before entering the field, Zakuani allowed himself a moment to reflect on how far he’s come.
“I tried to kind of take it in and just compose myself, thinking, ‘Just enjoy the moment,’ ” he said. “There honestly was a time when I thought I would never play football again. Honestly. … To be back there was, for me, the biggest achievement. I just took it in. I just said, ‘No matter how it goes … just enjoy yourself.’ Tonight was just about crossing that white line and being happy that you did it, and taking it in.”
His role required a lot of defensive duty, mostly chasing after the ball, and little action on offense.
“Normally, if I got (just) three touches on the ball, I’d be upset,” said Zakuani. “But those were the best three touches of my life.”
The Sounders just held on for the 2-1 win to end a franchise-worst nine-game winless streak, a fitting result for a momentous evening. The most poignant moment was when Zakuani and Colorado midfielder Brian Mullan, who broke Zakuani’s leg last April, exchanged jerseys and shared a hug.
“I’ve said from Day One I had no issues with him; I had forgiven him a long time ago,” Zakuani said. “There were no problems, but I think that was good to have that public moment for closure.”
Zakuani, who had targeted an Aug. 5 return, still has work to do to get back to being a consistent contributor. Schmid indicated the midfielder could go out on loan — perhaps to a lower-league team — in an attempt to get much-needed playing time.
Ultimately, the journey to a full comeback isn’t finished.
But Saturday was a night worth celebrating.
“It was a feeling I can’t describe,” said Zakuani, flashing his million-dollar smile. “All that hard work and multiple surgeries and rehab … it was all worth it for that one moment.”
• No Sounders were named to the MLS All-Star First XI, which is determined by a fan vote, for the league’s July 25 exhibition against English club Chelsea FC. Seattle forward Fredy Montero narrowly missed out as one of the top vote-getters among forwards.