Steve Zakuani knows what it takes for British footballers to succeed in Major League Soccer.
The London-raised Congolese international moved to America after coming through the ranks at Arsenal, and played alongside the likes of Freddie Ljungberg and Obafemi Martins in MLS before retiring due to injury.
He’s seen some massive stars become club favourites, like Robbie Keane in Los Angeles and Thierry Henry in New York, but the 27-year-old has also seen top talents struggle to adjust to the unusual demands of a league that’s very different to what most are used to.
Zakuani spoke to JOE about his expectations for Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard as the pair embark on their first campaign on the other side of the Atlantic, as well as sharing some of his thoughts on the league’s biggest rivalry and a former team-mate of his who is aiming for a big breakthrough in England.
“There are all sorts of things you need to adjust to, I think the guys who do well are the guys who buy into the MLS concept and understand that it’s not going to be like in England,” Zakuani explains.
“For me it’s the off-field stuff that’s the most challenging for these players, as opposed to players who came through college and are a bit more used to the way things are done here.
“It’s a very different lifestyle to anything you have in England – you fly to every game, pretty much, as it’s such a big country. If you’re in Seattle and you’re playing New York you’re going to leave two days before the game, fly six hours, have a three hour time change – all those kind of things take a big adjustment.”
“A lot of players who come over from Europe aren’t prepared for that, and they’re not prepared for the fact that week in, week out, all the games are pretty much at the same level. You don’t have ‘easier’ games in this league, or if you do it’s very rarely.”
Zakuani made his name with the Seattle Sounders, joining the club through the college draft system after two years at the University of Akron, and he was the club’s number one draft pick in their first year in MLS.
Whilst anyone familiar with American sports recognises this as a big deal, he still has plenty of friends in Europe who “don’t really get it”.
“In my first year I played with Freddie Ljungberg, who had spent 12 years playing in England – we spent 18 months playing together and I’d say from his first month until his last month he still had no idea what the draft was, no matter how many times I tried explaining what it meant he had no idea,” he says.
A few more Englishmen have followed Zakuani’s route into MLS, with Real Salt Lake’s Luke Mulholland and Seattle’s Andy Rose both beginning to establish themselves this season after impressing in their college days, and their success could encourage further youngsters from these shores to try their luck across the pond.
Due to his status as number one draft pick, Zakuani has been the man to whom new recruits turn pretty much every season. This has allowed him to take talented youngsters under his wing, helping them move on to bigger and better things (with no disrespect to MLS), and one such player is Spurs full-back DeAndre Yedlin.
“DeAndre was in the Sounders academy when I was in the first team, and he’s always played right-back so I’d go up against him in training when he was young and always told him he had a lot of potential.
“When he wanted to go to university, I advised him to go to the University of Akron where I went – so he went there, spent 2 years there and then came back to Seattle.
“In his first year back he ended up winning the job as starting right-back and obviously went on to do great things, made it into the USA national team and is now at Tottenham, and I got to speak to him recently when he was back in Seattle.”
Of course, there is a big difference between the expectations in MLS and those in the Premier League, so the learning curve was steep.
“He’s very gifted athletically, the thing he had to learn quickly was the tactical side because at this level you’ll get exposed, and I told him at the next level above this, the Premier League, you can get exposed even more.
“He’s always been fast and he’s always been able to jump high, but if you’re playing against someone like Eden Hazard you might be faster than him but Hazard’s so fast in his mind that he’ll get into spaces before you can get there.
“Jurgen Klinsmann put a lot of confidence in him and started playing him right away. Now he’s at Tottenham and I’d say him going there is a great move but at the same time it’s a really big club and it’s not easy to break in there.
“So it’s probably the kind of thing where you’ll end up going on loan, but he’s definitely very gifted and he’s very dedicated to learning the tactical side of the game, which is what he needs and I think he’s done well.”
If there’s one thing Zakuani misses from his time on the field, it’s probably the rivalry between his two former clubs, the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers.
It is the biggest rivalry in MLS, dating back to the days before the league’s creation, and to this day he is still the only player to have moved between the two clubs in the Major League Soccer era.
But if anyone has the experience to deal with such a move, it would have to be someone like Zakuani who played for Arsenal’s youth teams while growing up deep in the heart of enemy territory.
“I was kind of prepared for it in a sense,” he laughs.
“I was living in Tottenham, going to school in Tottenham, and then crossing over to Finsbury Park to play for Arsenal, twice a week for training and once a week for games. I lived around a lot of Tottenham fans but also some Arsenal fans.
“I’d even compare this derby to the North London Derby. When I was growing up Tottenham weren’t the best – they were good, but Arsenal were on a different level at the time. You always knew that Arsenal would pretty much always win, but you got into the game because of what it was, and that’s how it was with the Sounders and Timbers for a long time.
“In the past couple of years, though, the Timbers have got really good and Tottenham have gone up a level against Arsenal a bit.”
But while White Hart Lane is just a short bus ride away from the Emirates Stadium, the concept of a local derby is a little different Stateside.
“You do get used to America being such a big country, and what we call the ‘local’ derby, between Portland and Seattle, is three hours apart, whereas Arsenal and Tottenham are 20 minutes away. So it’s very different – if a team’s three hours away for you in England that’s definitely not a derby.”
But that doesn’t stop things getting heated between the two sides, as the recent US Open Cup encounter showed.
Seattle ended the match with seven players, in a game marred by Clint Dempsey tearing up the referee’s notebook, and the American international’s potential return against the same opponents on August 30 will add extra spice to a rivalry that doesn’t need anything more.
With the New York area now playing host to two MLS clubs and Los Angeles set to follow suit in short order, Gerrard and Lampard might soon have rivalries of their own to contend with.
But if they want to ensure their MLS stay allows them to enjoy this experience to its fullest, they’ll need to appreciate that things aren’t quite what they’re used to.