The Sounders quest for the MLS Cup may well rest on two men from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Blaise Nkufo and Steve Zakuani lit it up in the second half of the season.
They also share a bond beyond the soccer pitch. They hail from the same city in Congo, Kinshasa, which sits on a bend in the Congo River.
Kinshasa is the commercial hub of central Africa and a city that has endured countless civil wars, bloody coups and political upheavals. Both fled their homeland, known then as Zaire, as young boys and grew up in different parts of Europe to become professional soccer players, of all places, in Seattle.
For the soccer faithful here, relax. Seattle is one of the coolest places to be if you’re a soccer aficionado. But soccer is still new in America — it’s an emerging market that needs time to fit into the American sports culture.
Sure, Major League Soccer is growing and the quality of play improves every year. Foreign players know about Seattle’s burgeoning reputation, David Beckham says the stadium experience is the most European, and the European soccer cognescenti gasp impressively at an average 36,000 a game filling Qwest Field.
But the Sounders FC are only two years old. They are newbies compared to Europe or Latin American soccer clubs. And the MLS continues to struggle to fill seats in certain cities and to capture more of the prime-time sports coverage. Yet for Zakuani and Nkufo to end up here, in this emerging soccer hotbed, is an improbable journey that has as much to do about politics and globalization as it does about soccer.
Nkufo fled to Switzerland at the age of 7 a decade earlier than Zakuani, who left at the age of 4 for London. Both men came from well educated and talented families that had skills Western countries needed. Their families had the ability to flee the political corruption that poisoned Zaire and many African nations. They soon became the early adopters of an emerging global economy.
Nkufo, a reflective and intelligent man, earned the highest academic honors in Switzerland as a student before turning to professional soccer. He began his career at Lausanne Sport in Switzerland and then played for seven European clubs in 17 years as a number of European teams bid for his services. He eventually found a home at FC Twente, a Dutch first-division club that sits in the middle of the northern Dutch city of Enschede. He scored 114 goals over seven years at FC Twente, reaching his peak as a striker.
He made 33 appearances for the Swiss National Team, helping it qualify for the World Cup. Nkufo then played a prominent role in South Africa as the tiny Swiss nation caused the upset of the tournament when it beat eventual World Cup winners Spain 1-0 in the first round. Just before he came to Seattle in July, the supporters of FC Twente unveiled a bronze statue of him in a central gathering area just outside the stadium.
Zakuani took a more circuitous route, and his story is still being written as a player. Professional scouts caught his talent early and he soon enrolled in Arsenal’s famed youth academy only to get cut as a teenager. That harsh setback sent him down a path of trouble that led to seriously injuring his leg while riding a stolen scooter with a friend. He nearly gave up soccer.
But he rebounded and went to America to play college soccer for Akron University, where he tore it up for two years and led the nation in scoring (20) his sophomore year. Soccer America named him College Player of the Year, among many other accolades. The Sounders drafted first of all players in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft.
“There is a striking similarity that we both left for Europe and we both play professional football in Seattle, said Zakuani, 21. “But its pretty rare to have two guys from Congo (in Seattle).
Now, Nkufo and Zakuani continue this improbable narrative against the Los Angeles Galaxy Sunday night in the second leg of the Western Conference semi-final match. Seattle lost the first leg 1-0 and now faces a do or die reality. Win, and they live to battle another day. Lose, and they go home.
Any outcome likely will be influenced by the play and guidance of Nkufo leading the front line. The Swiss International, who has scored more than 200 professional goals, has been a calming presence. His ability to possess the ball, keep it away from defenders, and then make the intelligent pass to Fredy Montero or to Zakuani has elevated the Sounders play since he joined the team. “We are a better team with Nkufo on the field, Coach Sigi Schmid said.
Sounders Technical Director Chris Henderson, who scouted Nkufo in Holland, pointed out that Nkufo brings a high soccer IQ as well as high level of skill. “Hes so good at keeping possession,” Henderson said. “Hes a very smart soccer player and hes willing to help the young guys. From day one he has been one of our most important players.
Though it took the big man, 6-2, more than 500 minutes to score his first goal, Nkufo did other things to improve the teams attacking play. His vision of how the game should be played opened scoring possibilities for others. Montero and Nyassi certainly benefit, but the one who benefits the most has been Zakuani.
When Nkufo arrived in Seattle in July, Zakuani was the first to help him settle in the Emerald City. He showed Nkufo the city, helped him find a car and open a bank account. It helped that they also shared French as a common tongue. The language and their common background brought them closer together.
In exchange, Nkufo immediately found something Zakuani could not — plantains, a popular African food. One day after practice, Zakuani opened his locker and discovered a bunch of plantains sitting on his shelf. It was Nkufo’s way of saying thanks.
On the pitch, their budding friendship unlocked Zakuani almost immediately. Nkufo could hold the ball up and dish it to Zakuani streaking down the left channel. They almost seemed telepathic as each seemed to read the mind of the other and know where they were going to move or where the ball would be directed.
“Steve has been a great teammate since I have come,” Nkufo said. “He had the right words for me. He helped me get adjusted and find things for me. On the field, we connect better. But I say it’s not about one or two players. It’s always about the team.”
This season has been a break-out year for Zakuani. He has scored 10 goals in the MLS as a winger and has earned MLS Player of the Week honors twice. Much has been said about Zakuanis growing maturity on the pitch. But it is now clear Nkufo is having a influence on his fellow countryman.
At the end of practice, Nkufo and Zakuani can often be found shooting together on a goalie — just the two of them. Nkufo, the master, is teaching his young prodigy the finer points of finishing such as timing, bending, using one’s body to shield and create space for a first touch, as well as controlling the ball in the air — all in an effort to make the perfect strike.
“Nkufo is teaching Zakuani a lot of things around the goal, said Alan Hinton, Sounders TV analyst and former Sounders NASL head coach, who watches most practice sessions. “Its a wonderful thing. Nkufo has made Zakuani a better player.
The Sounders will need Zakuani to be at his best against Los Angeles in this crucial second leg. By his own admission, LA’s defense bottled up Zakuani more than he liked. He needs to rediscover his speed and find the spaces to exploit at Home Depot Field, which is a pitch that players consider to be wider than most in the league. He will need to shift his dribbling skills and acceleration to a higher gear. He will need to finish his chances.
“Zakuani’s performance is key,” Hinton said. “He’s very quick. He can score with his right foot, his left foot, even with his head. He has been playing the best soccer of his life.”
Chances are, Nkufo will somehow be part of the play that unlocks Zakuani down the left flank.
Though Nkufo looks physically drained following a long season of Dutch first division and a World Cup, the wily and cagey 35-year-old veteran knows he doesn’t need to do too much, or to be too fancy. He likes to play it simple and keep the ball moving around. He knows he can do just enough to make a difference.
“I have to stay as high as possible and keep defenders alert,” Nkufo said. “The expectation is big. I am used to that. I know what I can do. And if the team responds well, I will score or someone else will.”
For Zakuani, Nkufo offers more than friendship, more than a competent professional colleague. He offers inspiration.
“He understands the game very well,” Zakuani said. “He knows he’s at the end of his career. He’s here to make guys better, and he’s putting the team before himself. He’s got 100 goals in Holland and a statue. He’s accomplished his dreams. We aspire to achieve what he’s achieved.”
For the two men from Congo, who find themselves leading the Sounders in an emerging American soccer market, this improbable journey can only get richer.