Thursday, April 9, 2009

Steve Zakuani Is Loving Seattle

The UF interview series returns with its second interview with a number one MLS draft pick. Steve Zakuani of the surprisingly good Seattle Sounders was kind enough to take the time to answer our questions. Steve just scored his first professional goal last week against Toronto FC to help Seattle to an undefeated start to the season.

After the jump, Steve's answers. I implore you to read on, it's well worth your time.

First off, congratulations on the 3-0 start and your first professional goal last weekend against Toronto FC. What did it mean to you to score that first goal?

It meant a lot to me obviously because it's a goal I'll always remember. It's my first one, the first of many I hope, and it also came at an important time for the team. The first one is always the hardest one to put away, so I'm just glad I was able to be in the right place and finish off the play.

Your path to Seattle has been perhaps a bit unorthodox. How does a man born in Congo, raised in London and a member of the Arsenal youth team end up at the University of Akron and then Seattle?

It's been an incredible journey for me to get to where I am today. I left the Congo at the age of four and began playing club soccer in England when I was around seven or eight years old. In 1997, I signed for Arsenal's U10 team and played there for 5 years. I didn't make the cut there in the end, and sort of lost interest in football, and also suffered a serious knee injury that left me unable to play for 18 months. It wasn’t until late in 2004 that I began playing again. A friend whom I had played with at Arsenal invited me to play for the Independent Football Academy in London and from there I began to enjoy the game again, and I also began regaining my fitness and sharpness. Then in April of 2006, an assistant coach from Akron came to scout one of my teammates at IFA. I guess I had a good training session that day because he practically offered me a scholarship right afterwards. Despite not knowing much about college soccer, let alone Akron, I made the move to the States and it's obviously paid off.

You received a contract offer from Preston North End, but you ultimately decided to play in MLS instead. Why? What was it that made you stay stateside?

The nature of the MLS contract was very unique. I trained with Preston in the summer of 2008 and had a good time there, they kept tabs on me during the college season and when I decided to turn pro, they came with a very good offer, and so did MLS. The difference between the two offers was that the one from MLS included some money being put aside for me to continue my education either in the offseason or after my career. Seeing as I was two years into my degree, it definitely made sense for me to have that option. I also enjoy living in America and wanted to be a part of MLS because it's definitely a league on the rise.

Having just started your professional career, what has been the biggest difference between playing in college and playing in MLS? How different is the training in Europe as opposed to college and MLS?

The main difference between college and MLS is the speed and level of play. It's just a better standard. The league is filled with top level players, and good coaches, and I've noticed that most of the teams try and play football the right way with quick passing and moving. I feel I have adapted well to the level, I'm learning all the time, and I always remind myself that I'm only a couple of months in and so there is a long way to go. I think MLS is very similar to England in terms of the way the game is played. Both leagues are physical, fast, and end to end for the most part. The training I receive at Seattle is similar to what I've seen most English teams do, and obviously there are always little variations from coach to coach, but for the most part, it's very similar.

How do you find Seattle so far? What is your favorite/least favorite aspect of the city?

I like Seattle a lot. People told me it was similar to London in many ways, and they were right. It's a nice clean place with quite a few attractions, and there is always something to do. I love the fact that the entire city is behind us. Everybody knows about the Sounders and that means a lot to the players. When we see 30,000 people in the stadium, it drives us forward every minute of the game. The least favorite aspect so far has been the rain. Even though I am from London, I still don't like it when it rains, and so that's the one thing I wish there was less of.

How do the Seattle fans compare to other fans you have played in front of?

The fans have been first class. We've sold around 20,000 season tickets and every home game has been a sellout so far. We know they're behind us and it's great to play in front of them and feel their support. However, I've never come across supporters who can rival the English. Going to a game in England is an incredible experience, especially in the lower divisions because it's amazing how passionate some of those fans are. So I would say that for me, the English fans are the best, but Seattle has been great also, and the noise level in our stadium has really surprised me as well. It's incredibly loud at pitch level.

You are listed as a striker and were known as a goal scorer in college, but it seems because Seattle has Fredy Montero in great form, MLS veteran Nate Jaqua and Frederick Ljungberg returning from injury you will have to push out wide to get consistent playing time. Do you agree and is the wing a position you are comfortable or familiar with?

I'm very happy on the left. I played there at Arsenal, and it was always my preferred position. In college, because of the nature of the game, it made sense for me to be a forward, but I always knew that at the pro level I would probably play from the wing because it suits my playing style more. I like running with the ball and getting faced up, and obviously from the wing I get the opportunity to do that quite a lot.

Tell us about Coach Sigi Schmid. How much has he helped you grow as a player in the short time you have played under him?

He's obviously a very good coach with an impressive resume. Already in these early days I feel that he has taken my game to a different level than it was when I first arrived. Everyday in training he says something that makes me adjust my game, he definitely knows his stuff and so I feel that I am learning from a very good source. I am already a more responsible player, and I also understand that I can affect the game when I don't have the ball as much as I can when I do have it. For example, Sigi encourages me to make runs in behind defenders at the right times and in the right way, and it's those little things that help me adapt to the league.

Obviously there are off-field issues with which Fredy Montero is currently dealing. How do these types of issues affect the team and yourself personally? Is it really a distraction to the team or you?

We're aware of the situation but we are professionals and so we focus on playing football, We did that at Toronto, and we will keep doing it all year. There are always distractions but we channel them out and only think about playing. In regards to this situation, we obviously support Fredy, the whole team is behind him.

And now a few quick questions to end the interview.

What did you buy with your first professional paycheck?

Nothing fancy or flashy, a few clothes, and the rest is still sitting in my bank. I also got a few necessary things for my apartment, but apart from that, I haven't done much spending.

Who is your favorite footballer? Past and present?

There are a lot of players I have grown up admiring. I love the way Zidane played, I'm a big fan of Thierry Henry, and right now I try to watch as much Cristiano Ronaldo as I can. But there is one player who will always be my favorite player and that's Ronaldinho. What I saw him do at Barcelona between 2003-2006 was simply incredible. He could do everything. He was a great dribbler and passer, he was incredibly strong, he brought his teammates into the play and also took over games when the team needed it. He passed the ball with his back, he passed the ball facing the wrong direction, he put his free kicks under the wall, and also scored in the big games. I've never seen anyone play at such a high level so consistently.

Besides Seattle, which club is your favorite in the world?

It has to be Arsenal. I played there, I used to go and watch them, and lived near the stadium. I'm not the biggest fan anymore, but I do look out for their results and am always hoping they win.

If you weren’t playing soccer, what would you be doing?

I'd be in school somewhere. Probably in London because I wouldn't have gone to Akron, but I think I would be studying still. I would probably have a part time job on the side also to help pay for tuition and things like that.

Who do you model your play after, if anyone?

There's no one in particular but it's only natural to try and imitate the guys I most admire. If I see a player do something, I might try the same thing as well because I saw it work for them. But I don't pattern my game after any one player, I take a little bit from a few players.

You have a tradition of cutting a design into your hair prior to the start of the season, do you have any other traditions or superstitions before or during games?

Before a game I just try to get as relaxed as possible. I have my music playing on my iPod right up until it's time to go out for the warm up, and I usually try to visualize the game and try to picture what I want to see myself do. I also always pray before every game, usually right before we go out, that's the last thing I always do.

Steve, thank you so much for time. We wish you continued success and enjoy the Northwest Summer, which, in my opinion are the best you can find in the US.


Andrew said...

Good interview, TFA. Zakuani is humble and appreciative of the opportunity in Seattle. Best of luck to him.

The wide support for Sounders only validates the MLS decision to extend a franchise to Portland. Looking forward to the NW Derby.

The Fan's Attic said...

This was a great interview...thoughtful, intelligent and meaningful responses. Plus, you can tell Steve has a good head on his shoulders, although it may have design it.

Spectator said...

Cheers to Zakuani for the great interview! Just another reason that it's tough to root against the Sounders this year.

Ibracadabra said...

Great interview. Great kid. Hope he does make it to England one day.

Goat said...

Ibra--anything after northeast Ohio is a step down.

Autoglass said...

Excellent work, TFA! Steve was very responsive and you got a lot out of a short interview. a Unprofessional Foul Professional Interview

Magnakai Haaskivi said...

Nice write up! If you get to talk to him again, see if he has any advice for former Zip Charlie Frye, seeing as they're both in Seattle now.

Jordan V said...

Great interview, thanks!

In response to Magnakai though, Charlie Frye is no longer with the Seahawks as far as I know. He's no longer on the Seahawks depth chart, so I'm fairly certain he was cut entirely.

Caldwell said...

The comment about Seattle summers is 100% on the money. You should try to get Zakuani out to a bonfire at Golden Gardens!