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Originally published Saturday, September 22, 2012 at 10:37 PM

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Loss sours what could have been a special night for Sounders

Steve Zakuani scored his first goal since breaking his leg in Colorado in April of 2011. But the sweetness of that moment was trumped by the bitterness of the result.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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This could have been a historic night; a night to celebrate a team triumph and the remarkable and complete return of one of the most popular Sounders.

This Saturday night against the San Jose Earthquakes could have been one of those games we remember for as long as we continue to come to CenturyLink to watch the Sounders.

Steve Zakuani scored his first goal since breaking his leg in Colorado in April of 2011. It was as exhilarating a moment as we've seen all season.

But the sweetness of that moment was trumped by the bitterness of the result.

The Sounders lost the game 2-1 to San Jose and lost any chance of winning the Western Conference championship.

And if, as Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid suggested, this game was a measuring stick game, his team still is meters short of where it needs to be when the playoffs commence in November.

"I'm glad it happened now and not six weeks from now," Schmid said of the loss. "We need to take a lesson from this game that we cannot play the way we played in the first half. We need to play like we played in the second half.

"What matters is our attitude. If we learned something tonight, in terms of how we need to approach these games, what kind of attitude we need to have, then tonight was a very successful night."

On this night that could-have-been, the Sounders weren't prepared for the early, relentless heat that San Jose applied. In the first half, they were sloppy in the back, continuously frustrating their keeper Michael Gspurning.

Two minutes into the game, midfielder Simon Dawkins, alone 23 yards from the goal, lasered a shot that hummed over Gspurning's left shoulder and into the upper-corner of the goal.

"We gave him a chance to run and tee it up," Schmid said.

And 28 minutes later, after Zakuani scored maybe the most emotional goal of the Sounders' season, ever-opportunistic forward Chris Wondolowski scored his league-high 22nd goal of the season, converting a pass from Victor Bernardez.

That goal, for the Sounders' first-place hopes, was like pulling the final block out of a game of Jenga. It collapsed any chance of them winning the Supporters' Shield.

"I think they killed us in the first half to be quite honest," Schmid said. "If we play like we played in the first half, we won't go very far (in the playoffs)."

In this third win of the season for the Earthquakes over the Sounders, San Jose looked quicker, ornerier and just plain better. Measuring stick? The Sounders have lost seven games this season. Three of those losses have been to San Jose.

The Sounders, playing without midfielder Mauro Rosales (quad) and leading scorer Eddie Johnson (yellow cards), were better in the second half, keeping possession and turning up the heat. But they couldn't get the equalizer.

Even a draw could have turned this night into a reason to celebrate.

Sammy Ochoa, who replaced Johnson in the lineup, outfought and outmuscled San Jose defender Bernardez inside the box and slid a perfect pass in front of the goal to the far post that landed on Zakuani's right foot. His conversion in the 14th minute tied the game.

Sixteen months ago, it looked as if Zakuani's career might be finished. A vicious tackle by Colorado's Brian Muller in April of 2011, broke Zakuani's right tibia and fibula and derailed a promising start to his MLS career.

But Zakuani's rehabilitation was remarkable and inexorable. He returned for an exhibition game in March against Gonzaga and played in a reserve game in early June.

He made his 2012 MLS debut in July against Colorado and made his first start in 500 days last month at Dallas, assisting on a Rosales' goal.

All through Zakuani's recovery, Schmid has said that his midfielder's best soccer will be played in 2013, but Zakuani could be a wild card, another goal scorer for the Sounders going into the playoffs.

But even his spark wasn't enough to lift his teammates to a win.

With wins by Real Salt Lake and Los Angeles, the Sounders fell into fourth place and are 12 points behind the West-leading Earthquakes.

Measuring stick? The Sounders came up short.

Again.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com.

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