When the London soccer magazine “When Saturday Comes” took a look at English players developing their games at American universities, it chose to spotlight Sounders FC rookie Steve Zakuani.
The October issue shows a picture of Zakuani, in his rave green uniform, celebrating with teammates after scoring a goal against Toronto FC. The article doesn’t quote Zakuani, but it should have: He is an enthusiastic spokesman for his route to the pro game.
“At 18, I tried to go pro a bit back home, and I had some opportunities that I probably could have done,” Zakuani said after Sounders training Wednesday. “But I wouldn’t (have been) as good as I am now, after two years in college. I wouldn’t exchange that.”
Zakuani had no idea that such a path even existed until one day a friend awakened him with a phone call saying that a scout from the University of Akron in Ohio was in London to watch another player. He suggested Zakuani come down to fill out the training number.
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Zakuani went, and he made a fast enough impression to earn a scholarship offer – an honor that was initially lost on him.
“I didn’t know what the NCAA was, what scholarship was, I had never heard of Akron – I didn’t know anything,” Zakuani said. “But we just got to talking and they showed me some DVDs; and I thought, ‘This is going to work because my parents are pro-education, I’m pro-football: This is going to make everyone happy.’ And it worked out great.”
Because the English development system is run through clubs, rather than schools, the best players generally have to choose between sports or studies. Or the decision is quickly made for them: Zakuani said if you aren’t affiliated with a professional club by age 16, you probably never will be.
By going to Akron for two years, Zakuani got a head start on a degree in sports management. And he developed his game to the point where as a sophomore he led the NCAA in scoring and was selected by Soccer America as player of the year.
That got the attention of the Sounders, who took him with the No. 1 overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft. Twenty-four games into his pro career, his combined four goals and four assists rank third on the team.
“(Mixing soccer and studies was) difficult, but it was fun,” Zakuani said. “I like to read, I like to study, I like to learn new things. It was good for me. If I just had to do classes, then I wouldn’t like it. But I still got to get away and play soccer and see the country, so it was great.”
So great that Zakuani hopes to make it easier for other British kids to get the opportunity he stumbled into.
That’s why he started studying sports management, and that’s why he plans to return to get his degree.
“A lot of my friends back home, they’re more talented than me, but they never had a chance,” Zakuani said. “So today they’re stuck in 9-to-5 jobs that they hate. So, if I could go back and meet kids like me in 10 years time, (I would like to) put them in an environment where they can train and develop their skills and hopefully go with the professional clubs and then go off to college. ... Where I grew up, it wasn’t the London they see on the postcards. It was inner city. There are a lot of kids who are going to be where I was, and they’re not all going to get an Akron scout to come and watch them.
“So if I can help, I definitely want to do that. That’s something that means a lot to me.”
MLS has announced plans for next season’s schedule, which includes a break from June 11-25 to accommodate group play in the 2010 World Cup. The league also says no games will conflict with the World Cup semifinals or final.
Next season will begin with a single game March 25 and conclude Oct. 24. The full league schedule will be released early next year, however each team’s home opener will be announced soon.
The addition of the Philadelphia Union will bring the league’s membership to 16 clubs, and the league will retain its 30-game schedule by having each team play each other home and away.
Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808
More information on the 2010 MLS schedule is available at blog.thenewstribune.com/soccer