Adjusting to the pro lifestyle
Editor's note: Seattle's Steve Zakuani will be writing a rookie diary for ESPNsoccernet during the 2009 season.
These past two months since the draft have been very hectic for me. I want to get you caught up on what my life as a rookie in Major League Soccer has been like.
I went from being a college student to being a full-time professional athlete, and from living in Ohio to living out on the West Coast. It all began late in November as the college soccer season came to a close. My Akron Zips team had been knocked out in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament, and I began to hear rumors of interest from Major League Soccer. I'd already thought long and hard about the possibility of leaving college early and jumping to the pro ranks. Once I heard that MLS was lining up an offer, I decided it was time to leave college.
The decision wasn't an easy one because I had very strong ties to the people in Akron, and a part of me felt that I maybe needed an extra year of college soccer. In the end, though, my desire to test myself at the next level and fulfill a lifelong dream won out over my reservations. The first step was to tell my coaches and teammates I wanted to leave. Thankfully, my coach, Caleb Porter, was very understanding. We had lunch, and I gave him my reasons for deciding to leave. He was very supportive and played a much bigger role than he needed to in helping me through the process. My Akron teammates also were great about the whole thing, and that definitely made things easier for me.
The next part was having to select an agent. More than a few agencies came out and expressed an interest in representing me. In fact, I was in Caleb's office for hours, taking phone calls from agents and listening to their promises. However, my mind was already made up. I wanted Leo Cullen of Wasserman Media Group, a former MLS guy himself, to represent me simply because he had shown an interest in me before the season had even begun. He hadn't shown up after I scored 20 goals and earned postseason awards; he was there before the professional interest arose.
Seattle vs. New York
Qwest Field, Seattle
9 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
The toughest part of the entire decision-making process came when I had to choose between signing a MLS contract or returning to England to play for a team that was interested in me. I had two good offers on the table but chose to go with MLS because of the uniqueness of the Generation adidas contract. Having completed two years of college, I intend to return at some point to finish up my classes. The fact that MLS offered me a contract that would see it put some money aside for my future tuition swayed my decision.
The next step for me was to participate in the MLS combine in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The combine was a strange experience for me because I went into it knowing I already had a contract with the league. My goal wasn't to impress scouts, just to have fun and play pressure-free. Although I didn't have the best combine, I felt good going into the draft because I'd performed well enough during the three-month college season. In my heart -- and those close to me knew this already -- I wanted to go to Seattle. The fact that the Sounders had already sold close to 20,000 season tickets was exciting to me, and I also knew that Sounders coach Sigi Schmid had seen me play a few times in college when he coached in Columbus.
Jan. 15, 2009 is a day I will never forget. Most of it is a blur to me now, but one moment is still crystal clear, and that is the moment the commissioner said the words "and with the first pick of the 2009 draft, the Seattle Sounders select, from the University of Akron ..." I didn't even wait to hear my name. The rest, as they say, is history! And now, I'm here.
Professional soccer is everything I dreamed it would be and more. It's a much higher level than college in terms of speed of play, speed of thought and the technical ability of the players. The lifestyle is also very different. I went from playing with friends with whom I had class, ate late-night Taco Bell and studied to playing with people who were five, 10, and even 15 years older than I am; married men with children.
We train in the morning, finish in the early afternoon and have the rest of the day to ourselves. There is no rushing for a meal in between classes as you try to study for that math test. You simply play soccer and have a lot of free time to enjoy life and take things slowly away from the field.
It's also incredible being on the same team as Freddie Ljungberg and Kasey Keller, two players I grew up watching in England. There is a lot of talent throughout the team. We have made a good start to our preseason schedule with three wins, and I've even managed to score a couple of goals.
Obviously, as a rookie, it is my duty to entertain the veterans when they get bored. And so, in our training camp down in California, I had to get up, stand in the middle of the lunch area and tell a joke as my teammates and the coaching staff looked on. I won't repeat the joke I told (yes, it was that bad), but as I tried to take my seat, Kasey announced I wasn't going to get off that easily. He asked me to sing either the English, United States or Congolese national anthem -- the three nations from which I can trace my heritage. I chose the English one, and even though I got most of the words wrong, it was enough to get me off the hook for the time being!
Such is the life of a rookie. I hope you check back in a couple of weeks to see how my life as a pro is doing. Hopefully, we'll be getting close to the MLS season, and I won't have to sing any more anthems!
Steve Zakuani is a forward with the Seattle Sounders. After a standout career at the University of Akron he was selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft.