The memories are still strong, and not even that old. It was only a few years ago that we were all talking about Steve Zakuani being the next great MLS player. Landon Donovan was trying to convince him to wait for U.S. citizenship so he could represent his adopted country. He was an up-and-coming star with moves, and speed, and a personality that just drew people to him.
But we know what happened. We all know what happened. Brian Mullan's tackle snapped Zakuani's leg and knocked him out of action for nearly 18 months.
Zakuani returned, but he was never the same. His top end speed was there, but the bursts were not. He never seemed entirely confident, either. And the injures. Oh, the injuries. Zakuani could hardly stay healthy. The Seattle Sounders professed confidence in him, but were also willing to allow him to leave to Portland where he was reunited with his college coach and the man responsible for bringing him to the United States, Caleb Porter.
But it didn't go as planned there either. Zakuani had just as much staying healthy in Portland as he did in Seattle. He made 17 appearances but he never looked like the player he once was. Zakuani's season was cut short with about a month left in the season. He did not score a goal and had just three assists. There were whispers that maybe this was the end of the line.
On Wednesday, the 26-year-old confirmed those suspicions in a post on his personal blog.
It is with great sadness that I have to announce my retirement from football. To call this the most difficult decision I've ever had to make in my life would be a massive understatement. I've wrestled with this decision for months, but after weighing up all of my options, and listening to my heart, even though it is painful to reach this conclusion, I know that it is the right one.
Zakuani has plans, of course. The sometimes rapper is continuing to work with his charity Kingdom Hope and apparently writing a book, and he'll surely have quite a story to tell. This is a player whose family escaped war-torn Congo DR and resettled in England where Zakuani became an up-and-coming star with Arsenal only to have a motor-scooter accident cut that short.
Zakuani came back from that injury and got a second soccer life at Akron where he again saw his star rise to the point the Sounders made him the No. 1 pick in the 2009 SuperDraft. Although Zakuani only had four goals and four assists in about 2000 minutes during his rookie MLS campaign, the potential was so blatantly there that it only seemed a matter of time before he broke out.
That came in 2010. Despite playing on the wing, Zakuani managed 10 goals and six assists, at times seeming like one of the most talented players in the league. There was speculation as to which country he'd choose to represent -- Congo DR, England or the United States -- but it seemed to have a place no matter where he went.
He chose his country of birth, just like his brother Gabriel had before. But he only made one appearance and seemed to be open to switching allegiances.
Zakuani never got that chance.
On April 22, 2011 in Commerce City, Colo. -- with Zakuani enjoying an even better season than the one before -- Mullan lost the ball and felt he was fouled. In an effort to get it back, he went into a hard tackle, taking out Zakuani's leg and snapping it in half. It was as gruesome a tackle and as bad an injury as you'll likely ever see. Mullan was suspended 10 games. Zakuani sat out 16 months, while he battled compartment syndrome, waited for his leg to heal and then got back into playing shape. Neither player was ever the same.
Zakuani finally made his return on July 7, 2012, fittingly in a game against the Rapids. He played just four minutes, but he played. And this is what greeted him:
A couple months later, Zakuani picked up his first assist since the injury. And he even scored a goal, on a shot off the same shin that was snapped in half no less, against the eventual Supporters' Shield winners.
That also ended up being the last goal he'd score in MLS play. Even though the leg had healed, there was lasting damage to the way he moved and it seemed to lead to constant nagging injuries. He was never able to play in more than six consecutive games after the injury and more often than not, could barely play in two or three straight.
It is beyond sad that Zakuani is being forced out of the game that gave him so much joy at such a young age. But it appears that joy had been mostly sucked out. In his retirement note, Zakuani thanked the fans for their undying support and the various organizations that stuck with him. But he also made it clear that now was the right time to walk away.
When my career became more about the injections, MRI's, surgeries, doctors visits, painkillers, and limited physical capabilities, than the playing, enjoyment, love, and passion for the game, I knew it was time to call it a day.
That's not the way any of us want to go out, and it's hard to blame Zakuani for making this choice. He'll be missed, but hopefully this isn't the last we hear from him.