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Originally published February 10, 2013 at 7:52 PM | Page modified February 11, 2013 at 3:31 PM

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Zakuani's focus solely on soccer

Steve Zakuani is Seattle's leading scorer among active players following the loan of forward Fredy Montero to Colombia's Millonarios.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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TUKWILA — Gone are the weekly benchmarks, when Steve Zakuani would measure his recovery progress every Friday after a devastating leg injury.

His Twitter account? Inactive.

Recording music in the studio? Not any more.

"It's just football," said Zakuani.

A simple statement, but one that has been a long time coming.

For the better part of two years, the story for the Sounders FC midfielder has been about the injury, the recovery, the comeback.

Zakuani, who turned 25 Saturday, suffered a double leg fracture on April 22, 2011, in a road game against the Colorado Rapids. Worse yet was a complication called compartment syndrome, which resulted in nerve damage and a significantly longer recovery that went deep into the 2012 season.

Last year, tangible signs of progress were tracked over the many months, from his first practice game, to his first reserve game, to his first substitute appearance, to his first start, to his first goal — all since the injury.

And this year?

"I don't want any kind of distractions and stuff," said Zakuani, who claims to be in the best shape of his career after working with fitness coach Dave Tenney in the offseason.

"Let's just focus on football. That's something I said to myself — to kind of give my all to the team. I think it's going to help me in the long run because I'm going to be really focused."

Back to form

Zakuani is Seattle's leading scorer among active players after the loan of forward Fredy Montero to Colombia's Millonarios.

The news came as a shock.

"I mean I didn't play for two years," said Zakuani, a London native, upon hearing the news, "so I'm kind of surprised."

Seventeen career MLS goals, despite missing so much time, is a sign of what the dynamic midfielder can bring at his best. He scored 10 goals in 2010 and proved to be perhaps the most goal-dangerous outside midfielder in the league.

That year he also played his first international game for the Democratic Republic of Congo — the country of his birth — but also kept options open for a possible future with the U.S. men's national team.

A meteoric rise was stunted by the injury, but 2013 is the year to start getting back to that level, and Zakuani will have to play a vital role for the Sounders, now without their all-time leading scorer.

"I think this, for Steve, is a very important season," coach Sigi Schmid said. "Our fans, I know they saw him last year when he came on and played some games, but we haven't really seen him for two years now. We need to see the Steve Zakuani that we saw in 2010."

Schmid has likened Zakuani, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft, to a big offseason signing based upon expected contributions compared to last year.

For Zakuani, a huge confidence boost came in the team's season-ending game against the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Western Conference finals.

He described his standout performance against one of the league's best right backs, Sean Franklin, as the final check mark toward feeling how he did before the injury.

Becoming a leader

Zakuani is one of six Sounders remaining from the franchise's first game in 2009.

And while it might be hard to think of a guy who just turned 25 as a team leader, that's how Schmid has seen it this preseason.

"I'm excited by his attitude and by his enthusiasm as he comes in each day to practice, because I think his enthusiasm affects a lot of the other guys on the team," the coach said.

"He's always been a great individual player, and Steve has always made sure he's prepared, but there's a little bit of a shift where he feels a little more of a responsibility to make sure that the team is ready to play, as well. You do that by example, and he's setting a good example, and you do that by encouragement and talking, and he's certainly doing that, as well."

Defender DeAndre Yedlin can attest to as much.

The 19-year-old Seattle native, who signed out of the University of Akron as a homegrown player, said a steadying force in his transition to professional soccer has been Zakuani, another former Zips star.

"Just telling me what the Sounders are thinking about me through this whole process, he's definitely helped me a lot," Yedlin said.

Schmid said he thinks Zakuani wants to step up, on the field and off: "I think that's a good step for him. ... He's at that stage where now that's the next phase of development. It's not only your soccer development; it's also your psychological development. It's figuring out what's important. All great athletes go through that whether your name is Kobe Bryant or Steve Zakuani."

Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or jmayers@seattletimes.com

On Twitter: @joshuamayers

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