The chance to experiment led Steve Zakuani to the Bellevue’s boys soccer sideline.
Could high-school players execute possession-based soccer and win?
The Wolverines are providing a resounding answer through an unbeaten season and their first Class 3A boys state soccer tournament berth since placing fourth in 1981. Bellevue (13-0-3) will host Peninsula (11-6-2) of Gig Harbor in the first round Tuesday at 7 p.m.
“This is what makes me proud,” said Zakuani, a former Sounders star left winger (2009-2013). “The ideas I had, the style I had, it works in high school, and the boys are having so much fun.”
Zakuani first experienced the strategy as a rookie for the Sounders in 2009. Before a record crowd of 66,848 at CenturyLink Field, forward Lionel Messi led FC Barcelona to a 4-0 victory in a friendly.
The way Barca attacked the Sounders still widens Zakuani’s eyes in amazement when talking about the decade-old match.
“My soccer was changed,” Zakuani said. “I’ve never seen a team play how they played — where the players stood, what they were asked to do, everything was passing. And we couldn’t get the ball! I said, ‘What is this?’ I became a student of it. I wanted to play that way, too, so I began to develop my own philosophy based on (Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola).”
Once Zakuani’s pro career was derailed by injuries — after scoring 17 goals and helping the Sounders win two U.S. Open Cup titles — he started thinking about coaching. He dabbled as an assistant for the Tacoma Stars (2015-16) in the Major Arena Soccer League, as a volunteer academy coach and leading clinics through his Kingdom Hope nonprofit foundation.
A friend’s connection with Bellevue, which had won just 14 games over the previous three seasons, provided a way for Zakuani to add coaching to also working as a Sounders broadcaster, hosting a soccer podcast and running the charity. Zakuani made a one-season commitment in December and had 90 players show for tryouts in late February.
No one believed Zakuani’s style would work because of the skills needed to continuously possess and pass the ball. It also requires rigorous training.
“I told them, if you trust me and do this, I’ll take you further than you’ve ever been,” Zakuani said. “And I told the boys this before we ever played a game.”
The senior-laden Bellevue team opened KingCo 2A/3A play against Interlake, which defeated the Wolverines twice last season by an aggregate score of 9-0. Bellevue was down a goal at halftime and rallied to win 2-1.
Bellevue has recorded seven clean sheets this season, scored 37 goals and allowed only 13. Zakuani’s favorite stat is the Wolverines’ 72.5 percent possession average. He has friends from his foundation tally all statistics from game film, and he called in former Sounders teammate James Riley to coach the defensive schemes.
“Coach Steve strengthened our team a lot through tactics, especially with our training,” said junior Ryan Tobin, who has scored seven goals with five assists. “He’s made us work harder, and it’s paying off, clearly. It’s not all him, but he’s a huge part of our success. He knows what we’re experiencing as players, and what we need to do to win.”
It hasn’t all been easy. Tobin didn’t have a good tryout, so Zakuani put him on junior varsity and had to apologize for the error in evaluating his talent. And opposing teams’ parents tell Zakuani after games their displeasure that he didn’t coach, “a more deserving school,” rather than affluent Bellevue, which has seen plenty of success in other sports over the years.
Zakuani, 31, admits Bellevue has an advantage because he’s able to pore over game footage all day to devise training plans and scout opponents to give the team the opportunity to win. But he said he would have taken any vacant coaching position and doesn’t have an elite player on his roster.
It also took time to develop a bond with the team and to create unity.
“I’m from North London — low-income, bad neighborhood, very little opportunity to get out,” said Zakuani, who moved to England from Democratic Republic of Congo at age 4. “So, I relate more to inner-city kids. The Bellevue kids have struggles, but not what I had. Majority are from affluent families.
“If I were to coach an inner-city school in Seattle, from Day 1, we would’ve connected. (With Bellevue), I’ve had to find new depths of communication to figure out how do I motivate them? They’re a big fish in the pond, so I’ve used the fact that everybody hates them. I said, ‘Yeah, make them hate you more! The best revenge is success.’”
Tobin scored the winning goal in extra time last Tuesday to give Bellevue its first KingCo 2A/3A tournament championship in recent memory.
The play was off an assist from striker Jeb Michael, who has six goals and six assists. Senior Carson Wachter leads the team with nine goals.
“It’s probably the greatest feeling goal I’ve ever scored,” Tobin said. “Of course, I was questioning him and a little upset when I was put on JV. But I’m glad I got to play with this team, especially Coach Steve. He’s a great coach and has made us hungry. We really want to win state.”