Two damaged men entered CenturyLink Field Saturday.
Sounders speedster Steve Zakuani sat in the press box watching the man who broke his leg almost a year ago, do what he cant.
Colorado Rapids forward Brian Mullan ran the pitch and rekindled the moment at Denver last April 22 when his reputation and Zakuanis leg were mangled. Frustrated at losing possession, Mullan backtracked and charged into Zakuani, whose right leg was snapped in two places, costing him at least a year of his budding career. The incident filled Mullan with pain that wont show on an X-ray.
Saturdays 1-0 Sounders win at CenturyLink Field, won with Zach Scott’s first MLS goal on a header in the 63rd minute on a corner kick from Alex Caskey, was Mullans first appearance on the Seattle pitch since.
When his face was shown on the videoboard 20 minutes prior to the match, he was booed. Every touch he was booed. During the anticipation of every touch, he was booed.
It was expected. In fact, it was rather mild treatment of arguably the biggest villain any club could bring into the Sounders home.
Afterward, Mullan shook nervously. His eyes welled. He stood horseshoed by the media against a white concrete wall, a position he’s not a natural in no matter the topic. His arms were crossed. His left hand dug at his right biceps as his voice staggered.
Mullan spoke to Sports Illustrated in February about the play and anguish that followed. Other than that, hed been silent. Colorado chose to not make him available prior to the match, so he had to talk only once, post-game. The Rapids team trainer even offered to hide him. Mullan declined the shelter so many pro athletes choose.
So, he began.
Very apprehensive, leading up to it, Mullan said of his return. Very apprehensive is the best word for it. Theres a lot of great fans in this city and a lot of nerves leading up to the game. I applaud the fans, and they did a good job and conducted themselves professionally and consistent with their reputation.
There was little during this game for them to be riled about. Mullan received an 87th-minute yellow card when he clipped Osvaldo Alonso from behind. It was a common soccer interaction that Alonso dismissed as insignificant afterward. Of the four yellow cards issued Saturday, it would not have been notable — had Mullan’s career been devoid of the Zakuani incident.
Mullan received a red card for the heinous tackle on Zakuani and was suspended a league-record-tying 10 games. He said he was trying to set up a face-to-face meeting with Zakuani so he could apologize in person. It hadnt happened prior to the match.
When they do meet, Zakuani will walk up to a man cloaked in regret. Mullan is 33 — his 34th birthday is the day after the one-year anniversary of the tackle. Hes been a feisty pro since 2001 when the Los Angeles Galaxy drafted him.
Sounders defender Patrick Ianni embraced Mullan post-game. He later explained Mullan was part of a core in Houston who taught him how to be a professional.
Hes one of the hardest working players, if not the hardest working player Ive ever played with, Ianni said. I have a great deal of respect for his work ethic, and hes a competitor. I think one of the best competitors this league has ever seen, and I think thats what a lot of people would say about him, obviously outside of the incident last year, which was not malicious at all. It was what it was, and it was terrible.
Zakuani still doesnt know when hell be back on the pitch. The damage Mullan’s low, ferocious engagement did to him was greater than initially reported. Zakuani has made extensive progress. Seeing his recovery is not a salve for Mullan.
I wouldnt say its easier, Mullan said. Dont get me wrong. Im pleased. I want him back on the field more than anybody. Hes a great player, and for that to happen to him on my watch was something that Ill never live down.
Following the match when Zakuani was injured, Mullan said he felt it was a common tackle, one he would do a hundred times over. He no longer carries that mentality.
I dont know if youve watched me play since then, but its completely changed my game, Mullan said. When I made that comment, I had no idea the extent of his injury. Right after the tackle, I didnt even see him. (He 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 the extent.
This is not behind Mullan, personally or externally. Hes moved from five-time MLS Cup winner — tied with Jeff Agoos for the most in league history — to The Person Who Broke Steve Zakuanis Leg.
He said finally playing here allows him to know what to expect in the future. It wasnt relief, however.
It’s difficult from afar to feel sympathy for Mullan. It’s near impossible not to when standing in front of him. Opinion of Mullan needs to be filtered with each wrenching side of the incident. Subsequently, the fair assessment becomes muddled.
Saturday, almost done with two minutes of conversation he knew a city waited for, Mullan was asked when the haunting will be over for him. His eyes watered when his shaky words came out.
I dont think it ever can.
That is clear.