Playoffs in Profile: Zakuani now a Sounders star

Youngster improved his game for 2010, and results followed

As the MLS Cup playoffs get set to begin, the MLSsoccer.com series "Playoffs In Profile" will take a look at the players and personalities who will each play a crucial role in their teams' hopes of winning the MLS Cup.

In this installment, Seattle Sounders beat writer Andrew Winner focuses on the evolution of Steve Zakuani, who is back with a vengeance in his second year in the league. Young, fast and opportunistic, he's not kidding around anymore. Check back with MLSsoccer.com to read the latest story as the "Playoffs in Profile" series continues this week.

TUKWILA, Wash. – Alan Hinton knows a thing or two about being a left winger. During his playing career in England, the Derby County legend won two league championships with the Rams and scored more than 100 goals for three teams from the wide left position.

Now in his 60s, the midfielder known for his trademark white boots is a commentator for Sounders FC broadcasts and a regular fixture at Sounders training.

And when he looks at Seattle’s left midfielder Steve Zakuani, he sees a player starting to realize his enormous potential.

“Let’s say I called up a scout or a manager in Europe and said, ‘I’ve got a player for you to look at,’" Hinton said. “The first question always is, ‘Does he have fast feet?’ Zakuani does. He’s quick. He can score a goal, he can make a goal. He can win the ball in the air and he’s a delightful young man who is going places.”

Monday’s training session was held in a cold, biting rain, but Zakuani bounded around the field with a smile on his face, juggling balls and kidding with teammates. For a player who loves the game as much as Zakuani, it’s a classic case of a person who enjoys his work.

For opposing defenses, though, the 22-year-old’s passion is their pain.

“[There is] not any winger that is as goal dangerous as Steve Zakuani is," Sounder coach Sigi Schmid said of his Congo-born starlet. “I don't think there's anybody that can match his numbers. I wish he was American, because I think he's somebody who could play for the national team.”

Better With Age

If the statistics are any indication, the game is starting to slow down for the lightning-fast winger. His goal total has jumped from four to 10 during his second season in the league, and his assists also up from four to six.

He’s been a much bigger part of the offense, too. After being involved in less than 20 percent of the team’s tallies during his rookie season, that ratio has jumped to more than 40 percent this time around.

What’s the key? With his physical gifts and dribbling ability, the left midfielder has always been adept at getting behind defenses. Those forays, however, didn’t always result in the defense picking the ball out of the net. Several times in 2009, Schmid said that with experience, Zakuani would start to make better decisions in the opponent’s penalty area.

He was right. If there’s one difference between his first year and his second, it’s Zakuani’s decision-making process with those final touches.

“I think you can see the growth,” Zakuani said. “To be honest, I think I was getting to the end line and beating right backs more often than this year. Instead of getting there nine times, I’ve gotten there two or three times and we’ve gotten something from it.

“It’s just maturity. I think 10 goals from midfield—you can’t ask for anything more than that,” he added. “I grew up watching guys like Robert Pirès and Freddie Ljungberg and even Thierry Henry with Arsenal—these guys have always chipped in with double-digits. That’s what I’ve tried to.”

As a rookie, Zakuani became predictable with the ball at his feet. As a right-footed player playing on the left, he would often cut in on his right foot and attempt to squeeze off a shot like Henry or Cristiano Ronaldo. It didn’t take long for opposing defenses to pick up on this and force the midfielder to his weaker left.

Initially, the tactic worked. Zakuani earned the reputation of a player who could drift in and out of games. His game-changing ability didn’t manifest itself as often as it could. But now Zakuani is a player who can take a defender either direction, and still create a goal-scoring opportunity.

“I think he was the best young player last year and obviously he’s put a bunch of goals in the back of the net this year,” said one Eastern Conference technical director. “He’s got the pace; he can get around guys and use his right foot and hits the heavy shot when he needs to.”

“He’s decent with his left foot, too. The consistency when he gets to the end line and has to use his left foot to pick out guys to make passes [is better]. He can get there quite often; it’s a matter of what comes at the end of it. … I think he’s made improvements there.”

Added Schmid, “He's grown as a player, his work rate, his defending is better, his understanding of how to play in a wide position and knowing where to be – all that is greatly improved."

Mission Accomplished

Coming into the 2010 season, two areas of focus dominated Zakuani’s training sessions: becoming more dangerous in front of goal and running off the ball. In an otherwise forgettable game against Los Angeles on July 4, both points of emphasis were on display.

In Seattle’s 3-1 loss, Zakuani had been hounded by his marker, right back Sean Franklin. In the 66th minute, Zakuani controlled a loose ball and touched it to Fredy Montero in the midfield. By continuing his run, Zakuani evaded Franklin, who was out of position after coming all the way past the halfway line to pressure Zakuani.

Montero slid the ball back to Zakuani, who flummoxed Gregg Berhalter before using a burst of speed to get by Michael Stephens. Finally alone on goal, he confidently slotted the ball past Donovan Ricketts.

Three times this season, Zakuani has rounded a goalkeeper and scored on an empty net.

“This year you can see that I’ve scored a few goals by getting in behind teams,” Zakuani said. “I can beat people with the ball, but against someone like Sean Franklin, who’s quick, you have to beat them without the ball.”

Zakuani’s dynamic presence on the left side has given the club license to use two defensive-minded midfield players in the middle of the field. One can also make a strong argument that Zakuani’s presence has stretched defenses and allowed more room for Sanna Nyassi on the right side.

“Every day’s about getting better,” Zakuani said. “Last year I was a good young player; this year I wanted to be a good player.”

Off the field, Zakuani has taken a special liking to Blaise Nkufo. Like Zakuani, the veteran of the Swiss and Dutch leagues is also a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nkufo and Zakuani have developed a close relationship. According to Zakuani, the two of them work on finishing most days after practice.

Zakuani said last season that he’s interested in representing the Congo in international competition, where he could play alongside his brother Gabriel, a defender with Peterborough United in England’s League One. Recently, he confirmed that he’s been contacted by the Congolese federation.

Some American fans are keen to see Zakuani in the Stars and Stripes. However, the uncapped player would need to become an American citizen before he could entertain offers from US Soccer.

Zakuani does, however, look primed for a long career in Rave Green, with a smile on his face and a work ethic that make him primed to become the league’s next star.

“It’s very good that Sigi and crew found him in the draft,” Hinton said. “This club’s got real talent, and he’s a bright shining light for the club and for the game.”

Ready to Launch: MLS Matchday 2010, The new official MLS iPhone app. It's FREE! Download it here!