There was simply no denying that Seattle Sounders practice was a little different from normal on Monday. The most obvious difference was the absence of Steve Zakuani, always one of the more vocal players on the training pitch. But James Riley, the man who reporters always seem to go to when they are trying assess the mood of the team, admitted that practice was different in more subtle ways too.
"There’s a cloud over us for sure," the right back said, while also admitting that the team was not at its best in the second half. "I think it was a different vibe at practice.
"Guys were more on their tippy toes and didn’t want to get stuck in as much. Guys were a bit more hesitant."
It was the first day back in training for the Sounders and the fact that rain was coming down pretty hard probably didn't help, but it did seem to capture the mood effectively. There was less laughing and there seemed to be a pall over the proceedings. Members of the media huddled in raincoats and under umbrellas, talking almost entirely about the incident that snapped Zakuani's leg.
Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said Zakuani's time frame for returning is still unknown.
"It really all depends on what happens in the next two to three weeks," he said. "Again, when you talk to doctors, one time it'll be 'highly unlikely' and also one of the doctors said, 'I think he can maybe play by the end of the season.' It all depends on how things go on the recovery and everyone's different."
Whether Zakuani returns this year or not, life will have to go back to something resembling normal. Zakuani is expected to be back in town this week, potentially as soon as Tuesday, and the Sounders will be back at training on Wednesday. Hopefully, that will be enough time for them to start focusing on Saturday's opponent, Toronto FC.
In the immediate future, Alvaro Fernandez and Erik Friberg appear to be the most obvious candidates to fill in for Zakuani. Schmid also mentioned Miguel Montano, Lamar Neagle and Michael Tetteh as possible left mids, presumably further down the line.
While those players may be able to mimic Zakuani's production, no one is pretending they can replace him, whether on the field or off it. Zakuani really was a unique talent, a wide midfielder with world class speed, great soccer sense, impressive on-ball skills, a deadly shot and a quality passer. He was also developing into a leader, and seemed to have a good relationship with everyone on the team. The good news is, the injury doesn't appear to have robbed him of his sunny disposition.
"He’s constantly joking," said Patrick Ianni, one of Zakuani's best friends on the team. "It didn’t take long to get back into that mode with me. I expected him to come back as he did in the best spirits, even under the drugs he’s under right now. He’ll have a positive attitude for sure. He knows in the big scheme of things he’ll be fine and I know too. There’s nothing to be down and out anymore."