Will Zakuani ever return to his pre-injury form?
Steve Zakuani certainly can't.
It was nearly a year ago--April 22, 2011--when the Sounders and Colorado Rapids took the pitch at Dick's Sporting Goods Park (proof that there are much worse stadium names than CenturyLink Field) in Commerce City, Colo., just north of Denver. In the teams' prior meeting in the previous July, Zakuani had scored both Seattle goals in a 2-1 victory. Mullan, who over the course of 11 seasons had raised the MLS Cup five times and earned a reputation for his physical, aggressive brand of play, ensured that wouldn't happen again, in a shocking incident that would alter the courses of both players' seasons--if not their careers.
Just three minutes in, Mullan lost possession to Tyson Wahl along the right side in the Sounders' end, threw up his hands in frustration, complained to an official, then went after Zakuani, who had corralled the loose ball, faked out a defender, and was racing back upfield. Mullan, intent on retaliation, came in high and hard with a two-footed slide tackle, violently upending Zakuani. The loud double "crack" at the moment of impact was the tibia and fibula in Zakuani's right leg snapping.
His teammates ran over to Zakuani, saw his right foot flopping around below the shattered ankle, and rushed Mullan, who was arguing his case to the officials. While one official attempted to restrain them, Mullan, who received a straight red card and was ejected, took cover behind the other. Zakuani, in agony, eventually was wheeled off on a stretcher. He underwent emergency surgery--the first of several operations over the next few months--to secure and set the bones and repair muscle damage, and would spend five days in a Denver hospital before returning to Seattle.
Mullan didn't help his case after the match, asserting "it was a tackle that I've done hundreds of times, and I'd probably do it again." Then-Rapids coach Gary Smith claimed his player was "very competitive" and the "emotional" challenge was merely "mistimed."
Mullan's action was deliberate, not to mention reckless, careless, thoughtless, and clueless, and he paid a high price for it: Major League Soccer suspended him for a league-record 10 matches (including being sent off for the red card) and fined him $5,000, stating that "the challenge showed an utter disregard for Zakuani's safety." But Zakuani has paid a much higher price, missing the rest of the 2011 season and a significant portion of 2012, and seeing a future that held so much promise derailed, at least for the time being.
Zakuani, Congolese by birth and raised in London, is a product of Arsenal's vaunted youth system and starred at the University of Akron, where he was named College Player of the Year by Soccer America. The first pick overall in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft, he was regarded as one of the league's rising young stars after a 10-goal, six-assist effort in 2010 and was well on his way to eclipsing that effort last year, scoring two goals and assisting on two more through six matches.
All that changed in an instant, and his past year has been filled with uncertainty. The severe injury, which eventually required a skin graft, also resulted in nerve damage that caused him to lose feeling in the lower part of his right leg for an extended period, and he lost nearly 20 pounds--a lot, given he was a slender buck-sixty to begin with. In addition, the emergence of David Estrada and acquisition of Eddie Johnson up front and establishment of midfielder Alvaro Fernandez on the left means the 24-year-old is a man without a clearly defined position when he does return.
That date may not be so far off. On April 1, Zakuani participated in his first competitive match since that fateful Friday night, starting and playing the entire first half--25 more minutes than planned--in a scrimmage against Gonzaga, and, though understandably rusty, showed evidence of his ball skills, quickness, and open-field speed. The original timetable for his return--July or August--may even be accelerated by a month or two.
Saturday afternoon's match (1 p.m., KONG-TV) marks Mullan's first appearance here since he injured Zakuani; the Rapids were here last July, but Mullan, recuperating from a back injury, didn't make the trip. To his credit, he's made a number of statements over the past year that have indicated contrition, regret, and remorse, and he intends to apologize to Zakuani in person after doing so over the phone last year.
Mullan has made all five starts for a Rapids side that enters this match on the back foot, coming off a 2-0 loss at Real Salt Lake last week. Colorado has nine points from five matches, two more points than the Sounders, who've played one fewer match. The Rapids have never won here, losing all four matches, including a U.S. Open Cup contest. Last July's visit was especially costly; high-scoring forward Conor Casey went down with a torn left Achilles tendon, an injury that still has him sidelined.
The major development for the Sounders is the possible return of Mauro Rosales from a sprained right knee suffered four weeks ago in the season opener against Toronto. Shut out the past two weeks, the team has sorely missed Rosales' creativity, skill, and playmaking ability on the right side. If he does play, it'll be the first time since the opener that the first-line midfield has been intact.
And if you're looking for a Sounder to end a scoreless streak that's reached 260 minutes, don't bet against Fredy Montero; scoreless through the season's first month, he's long overdue, and he has four goals in six career starts against Colorado.