Zakuani makes history as Seattle's first-ever draft pick
ST. LOUIS, Mo. -- Seattle's notoriously icky weather isn't likely to bother Steve Zakuani one bit.
"It's a lot like London, from what I've heard," the University of Akron's prolific striker said with a nervous laugh Thursday, just moments after joining the elite fraternity of No. 1 selections in Major League Soccer's annual draft.
So the London-born Zakuani not only made history as the expansion Seattle Sounders' initial draft pick, he inherited the bonus of employment in a city that reminds him of home.
Zakuani grew up a Manchester United fan. He switched allegiances in 1997 when he signed on to play in Arsenal's youth system. He took something of a flier by accepting a scholarship offer to play at Akron, sight unseen, in January of 2007. Now he will help Sounders manager Sigi Schmid build the brand in the American Northwest.
"I told everybody close to me that if I could pick one team, it would be Seattle," he said. "Just because it was a new team, and I like the coach a lot. So for that to happen is amazing."
Zakuani looked and sounded a bit nervous while negotiating a face full of cameras and tape recorders and mugging awkwardly for photos while holding the Sounders' XBOX 360-emblazoned jersey. He certainly didn't look as comfortable as he did in two years at Akron, where a nation-leading 20 goals in 2008 helped establish him as the clear favorite to go No. 1 at this year's draft in wintry St. Louis.
Even a somewhat stale performance at the MLS combine in Florida, which preceded Thursday's draft, couldn't dent his place in the order. Zakuani recognizes his place in history, but knows it won't mean much when the Sounders report for preseason physicals on Jan. 20.
"It's a nice title, and it's more for the glamor and stuff," he said. "But at the same time, going first, going 10th, going last, you still have to go to camp and prove you can play. But to go down in history as the first pick of the Seattle Sounders, that's incredible, and I'll never forget that."
The 6-foot striker first met Schmid just four days before he was drafted, at the combine in Florida. They chatted briefly, when the former Crew manager told Zakuani that he had seen a few of Akron's games, since the university wasn't far from Columbus. Schmid didn't say at the time that Zakuani would be the selection. In fact, the Sounders appeared willing to deal away the No. 1 pick. As one MLS coach said on the eve of the draft, "They've definitely hung the 'For sale' sign."
But with no adequate offers, the Sounders used their pick to take the Generation Adidas signee, who is expected to make north of $150,000. (The amount won't count toward Seattle's salary cap, something that made all nine Generation Adidas signings golden in Thursday's draft.)
That Zakuani would even sign with MLS was hardly a slam dunk. He had interest from clubs back in England and could have chosen to take his still-improving game overseas. Zakuani admitted to laboring over the choice.
"The more I thought about it, saw the way the league is rising, I wanted to be a part of it," he said. "I came from England, so I know that system a little bit better. So I wanted to try a new adventure and see what I could do in MLS."
No. 1 picks in MLS have a spotty history at best. Jason Moore, Steve Shak, Chris Carrieri and, perhaps most infamously, Nik Besagno were top-pick busts from the last 10 years. Marvell Wynne and Maurice Edu have helped rescue the reputation of the spot somewhat in recent years.
Soon enough, some of the attention will shift away from Zakuani, as Designated-Player signing Freddie Ljungberg will be around to absorb the bulk of the media spotlight. Zakuani talked about meeting Ljungberg a few times when both were at Arsenal. In fact, the Sounders' draft pick even managed to shake his nerves long enough to crack a joke about bumping into the former Arsenal attacker.
"I don't think he'll remember me, though," Zakuani said with a laugh.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.