Portland Timbers forward Steve Zakuani is retiring from soccer at the age of 26. If that seems young, that's because it absolutely is. And if "injuries" seems like a weird reason to give for a player young enough to be in his prime, that because it's pretty abnormal. But then, there wasn't much that was normal about the career of Zakuani, a story that managed to touch fans of the league -- not just his supporters in Seattle and Portland -- in an amazing variety of ways given its brevity.
Zakuani's reitrement announcement, posted on his official website today, is a heartbreaking read, and the reasons given for stepping away from the game sound more like those that would be given by a 36-year-old, not a player a decade younger.
It’s gotten to the point where I have to be honest with myself and listen to my body. I believe that because of my love for the game, if I had to, I could find the strength to play for a few more years, but I would be doing so through a lot of aches and pain – and in the grand scheme of things that isn’t worth it to me. I love playing football but I don’t want to compromise my long-term health for it. I never imagined that I would have to retire from football at the age of 26, but that’s what it has come down to. 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.
Drafted first overall out of the University of Akron by the Seattle Sounders for the club's inaugural season in 2009, Zakuani boasted a slightly different résumé than most MLS rookies coming straight out of college. Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zakuani moved to London with his family as a child and spent five years in the Arsenal youth system. It was there, he said in a 2012 interview with Arsenal.com, where he learned to play the style that would become his trademark in a vastly different league many years later: Speedy, inventive, and with plenty of flair.
That education came to an end in 2002, when 14-year-old Zakuani was released by Arsenal -- the first tough blow in a playing career that would have many of them. But while later setbacks were defined by Zakuani's focused comeback attempts, this first one led to the player falling out of love with the game, and falling in with the wrong crowd. A year after his release from Arsenal, Zakuani crashed a moped that had been stolen by a friend, which resulted in multiple severe injuries to his foot and knee.
For the first time, his career was in jeopardy. For the first time, Zakuani had to do serious rehab. And in the process, the hunger that made him a fan favorite wherever he went was born.
Zakuani tried and failed to catch on with teams across Europe after rehabbing his injuries, but his only offer came from an unexpected place: The University of Akron, which was just beginning an incredible run of success under the direction now-Timbers head coach Caleb Porter. With little other option and the offer of a free education too good to turn down, Zakuani entered the U.S. college soccer system. Before long, he was dominating it. Zakuani led the Zips in scoring with six goals in his freshman year, then exploded in his sophomore season with 20 goals and seven assists. Fans now had another reason to love Zakuani: it was clear from his highlights that the kid had a bright future in MLS.
His potential at the next level now readily apparent, the nascent Sounders made Zakuani a cornerstone of the club's inaugural season. The forward did not disappoint, scoring four goals with four assists in his rookie year and helping the club capture the 2009 U.S. Open Cup. He was even better the next season, establishing himself as one of the league's most exciting attacking talents by netting 10 goals as Seattle captured the Open Cup once again. The sight of Zakuani drifting in from the wing gave defenses nightmares. His smooth moves on the ball had to be respected.
Zakuani was becoming more than just a good player - he was becoming a good advertisement for the league. He scored highlght-reel goals, and released freestyle rap tracks. It was impossible to deny his talent, which is why the outcry came from all corners of the league when Zakuani's career was once again halted by a major leg injury. This time, it came the most brutal moments in MLS' history. In a league game against the Colorado Rapids, a hard challenge by Brian Mullan snapped the tibula and fibula in Zakuani's leg. The challenge reportedly was so bad that Mullan sought counseling and was handed a 10-game ban.
Zakuani would be out for much longer than that. After surgery and a battle with compartment syndrome that nearly resulted in amputation, the player wouldn't make his return to the field a year and a half after the injury. Yet even while he was gone, his presence impacted observers of the league. Subscribers to MLS' online streaming service were treated to a Microsoft ad featuring Zakuani before loading any MLS game from the time of his injury layoff up until relatively recently. The repetition annoyed many (seriously, say "This is how I work, and this is how I play" near any MLS fan -- you're likely to get a groan), but somehow that didn't harden feelings toward the player himself.
When he finally made his return after injury, the moment stands as one of MLS' most emotional welcomes.
Yet for as good of a story as Zakuani's return was for fans of the league, the injuries collected over his career began to take their toll, even as Zakuani left the Sounders and attempted to right his career this past season with the Portland Timbers.
"The journey I have been on in these last three years has been nothing short of a rollercoaster ride – ups, downs, fears, setbacks, doubts, defeats, successes, strength, inspiration, perseverance – those are the words that define my journey," Zakuani writes in his farewell letter. "There’s no way I can fully explain some of the low places I’ve been to; or some of the remarkable strength I’ve gained from what I’ve been through in this letter."
Zakuani gave fans hope of comebacks, amazed them with his play, and lodged himself in their subconscious with his music and hawking of technological products. A career as remarkable and diverse as that deserves a fitting end. Zakuani plans to create one himself -- at the end of his letter, he revealed plans to write a book.