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Originally published Saturday, April 14, 2012 at 6:15 PM

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Mullan contrite for injuring the Sounders' Zakuani, but it can't undo the damage

Brian Mullan, 33, is among the greatest winners in league history, with five MLS Cups on his résumé, but one play taints his legacy. And he knows it. And with red-rimmed eyes, he accepts it.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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The infamous Brian Mullan bites his lip to restrain the tears. It feels as if his past recklessness is crushing him.

Standing in front of a cinder-block wall, surrounded by media, the Colorado midfielder was forced to revisit his gruesome display of poor anger management a year ago. The result was horrible: With a hard tackle made out of frustration, Mullan broke the right leg of Sounders FC star Steve Zakuani in two places. After multiple surgeries and 12 months of mending, Zakuani is still a few months from returning to MLS action. After a league record-tying 10-game suspension and all this time to reflect and reform, Mullan is still a villain in Seattle.

On Saturday, he played at CenturyLink Field for the first time since the incident, and during that postgame interview, he finally felt the weight of his hot-headed decision.

He knows better than to think that this is over. Mullan, 33, is among the greatest winners in league history, with five MLS Cups on his résumé, but one play taints his legacy. And he knows it. And with red-rimmed eyes, he accepts it.

Asked if his much-publicized Seattle visit can give him closure to the Zakuani incident, Mullan whispers, "I don't think it ever can."

Yeah, tell that to Zakuani's leg.

That will always be the reaction, right? Mullan will receive little sympathy, at least not in Seattle. His story is an enduring lesson on composure. One angry moment changes everything.

During the Sounders' 1-0 victory Saturday, the crowd of 38,360 booed Mullan every time he touched the ball, and he actually got off easy. No issues with fans as he walked to and from the locker room. No attempts at retaliation from Sounders players on the field. No classless displays. Just pure, unified heckling.

Mullan says he's "very glad" this game is over.

"I was very apprehensive," he said. "Leading up to it, apprehensive is the best word for it. There are a lot of great fans in this city. A lot of nerves leading up to the game. I applaud the fans. They did a good job and conducted themselves professionally and consistent with their reputation of being very good."

Mullan was contrite and emotional after the match. He says he has made attempts "through intermediaries" to meet with Zakuani and give a face-to-face apology. As of Saturday afternoon, he hadn't been able to connect. If he's truly sincere about apologizing in person, he should try harder. Zakuani isn't in some athlete-protection program. He doesn't even seem mad at Mullan. Last week, Zakuani explained that he would "never wish ill on anybody."

Mullan is fortunate that he's now linked to such a classy athlete. Though Mullan can't make up the incident, it could be much worse for him. It's encouraging that Zakuani is training with the Sounders again and eyeing a return in a few months. The big question, though, is when or if Zakuani can return to being the swift, dynamic player he had become before Mullan crashed into him.

"I want him back on the field more than anybody," Mullan said. "He's a great player. For that to happen to him on my watch was something that I will never live down."

But has he learned from it? It seems so, but Mullan must prove himself again and again. Immediately after the tackle last April, Mullan called it "a tackle that I've done hundreds of times, and I'd probably do it again." He backed off that statement on Saturday.

"I don't know if you've watched me play since then, but it's completely changed my game," he said. "When I made that comment, I had no idea of the extent of his injury. Right after the tackle, I didn't even see him. I was swarmed by their team — rightfully so. I had no idea of the extent until I was actually leaving the stadium, and the team chaplain told me."

Interestingly, the contrite and emotional Mullan received a yellow card during Saturday's match. He gave Sounders midfielder Osvaldo Alonso a hard tackle from behind. Players on both teams gathered at midfield to exchange pushes and shoves. Alonso brushed it off, but teammate Fredy Montero called it a "dirty play" and thought Mullan deserved a red card.

Montero was overreacting. The play wasn't that bad, but it proves that the perception of Mullan has changed from hard-nosed player to potential menace. It's unfortunate. But that's part of his punishment.

Well, at least he doesn't have to deal with another "first game in Seattle since the incident" story line anymore.

"The only thing it helps is I know what to expect now," Mullan said. "That's about it."

Well, at least he still has two healthy legs.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @JerryBrewer

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