Watching Steve Zakuani play just one match, a couple of things will became blatantly obvious: He possesses world-class speed and has impressive dribbling abilities.
Relying mostly on those twin talents, Zakuani lit the world of college soccer ablaze during his sophomore season. He was named Soccer America's Player of the Year after registering 20 goals and seven assists. His Youtube highlight reel is full of images of his dribbling around, through and past hapless defenders. It's not hard to see why the Sounders made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft.
Zakuani posted solid, if unspectacular numbers, during his rookie campaign. After playing in all but one match, he registered four goals and four assists, while showing glimpses of his potential.
He may not be a finished product yet, but he is now being noticed as much for his production as for his physical talents. With eight goals and four assists, Zakuani has the 10th most points in MLS. Zakuani is fitting almost perfectly into the role he sees himself playing.
"The primary role of a winger position is to give assists," Zakuani said. "I always want to score, but my main job is to contribute. That last goal (against Columbus) is definitely one that makes me happy. Sometimes I think you’re more happy when you do that for a striker, when you give him the ball on a plate like that. I just think it’s a case of I’ll score when I score."
Even more impressive than the actual numbers is the way he's achieved them. At the start of the season, for instance, he was regularly getting behind defenders and scoring in one-on-one situations. As the season has evolved, defenders have put more emphasis on keeping Zakuani in front of them. Zakuani has also been asked to shoulder more defensive responsibilities, limiting his ability to break free on field-stretching runs.
Zakuani has responded by using his speed in quicker bursts through traffic or -- as we saw on Saturday and twice against Chivas USA in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal -- working the ball toward the byline and then sending centering passes to oncoming strikers.
"Teams wise up and they see what you’re doing and they try to defend that," Zakuani said. "I know my numbers are up, but I’m happy because maybe last year I was beating a guy six, seven times and we got nothing. Now, I can beat him once and we’ll get a score. I think that’s where the evolution comes from.
"If I had kept doing the same thing I was doing before, I think it would show a lack of intelligence. You have to learn. I go home and see the game sometimes and I figure out how certain guys play me. Every game I try to play different."
The match against Columbus was a great example of this evolution.
When the Crew visited Seattle in May, Zakuani pretty much abused Frankie Hejduk. The most glaring example was when Zakuani beat a high defensive line, getting about 10 yards behind Hejduk on the go-ahead goal. The 36-year-old right back could only raise his arm in a desperate plea to have the play waved offside as Zakuani went in alone, made one touch around goalkeeper William Hessmer and cooly slid the ball into the net.
Zakuani's assist on Saturday was similar in that he used his speed to beat Hejduk, but totally different in the way he did it.
This time, Zakuani received a pass from Blaise Nkufo near the centerline and dribbled down the left side. Hejduk gave the winger plenty of room until Zakuani neared the penalty box. At that point, Hejduk attempted to tackle the ball away. Zakuani easily evaded him, and was all alone as he approached the byline.
Facing the choice to either shoot from a tough angle or attempt to center the ball through four defenders, Zakuani did what any self-respecting playmaker would do: He made it work. Zakuani found Nkufo all alone at the top of the penalty box and the man who scored enough goals to earn himself a statue from his former team casually completed the first hat trick in Sounders history.
"He knows how Blaise likes to drift to the 'D' there, so as he got in deep, he looked for that," Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. "(Fredy) Montero made a great dummy and it ended up being a great goal. That just proves as you play which each other more and more that the understanding grows."
Although they've only known each other a couple of months, Zakuani and Nkufo seem to be meshing quickly. The two have found common ground over their similar upbringings -- Nkufo left the country now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo for Switzerland when he was 7, Zakuani left there for England when he was 4 -- and even communicate to each other in French when they are on the field.
"We talk a lot," Nkufo said. "I watch the way he’s moving and the way he likes to play and I think he’s watching how I move and where I like to get the ball."
More than simple X's and O's, Zakuani seems intent on getting as much out of the time they have together as possible.
"He’s already come up to me and said, 'I see this in the game' and says 'tweak this, tweak that,'" Zakuani said. "It’s just one of those things, I have a lot of respect for that. He’s at the end of his career. He’s done what he needs to do. There’s a statue of him in Holland, so there’s nothing more he needs to do. I’m at a spot where I’m still trying to build my legacy and he’s definitely someone that’s a mentor and someone you can learn from."