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Aug 6, 2009

Chelsea game the highlight of the season so far

Editor's note: Seattle Sounders forward Steve Zakuani, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft from the University of Akron, will be writing a rookie diary for ESPNsoccernet during the 2009 season.

A few weeks back might have been my most enjoyable one so far this season.

It began with a great exhibition game against Chelsea FC on July 18, which we lost 2-0. However, on this day, the result was not the most important thing. We usually have around 32,000 fans at our home games, which is incredible because they make a huge difference with their constant support and encouragement. However, for the Chelsea game, we managed to pack 65,000 screaming fans inside Qwest Field. It was by far the largest crowd I have played in front of, and it was a truly remarkable feeling to be able to walk out on to the field alongside John Terry, Michael Ballack and Deco while looking out at the sea of green that filled the stadium.

Goose bumps, I tell you, pure goose bumps.

The game itself was entertaining, as both teams tried to play good soccer. It would have been nice if we'd scored a goal for our fans, and we certainly had the chances to do so, but Chelsea showed why it is who it is and finished off its opportunities. For players like me, who aspire to play in Europe one day, it was great to have the opportunity to measure ourselves against the best of the best and see how far we still had to go. I was directly up against Jose Bosingwa, who, like me, was born in the Congo but raised in Europe. We chatted after the game in one of the local Congolese languages, and I found myself extremely surprised by the fact that he could speak it better than I could.

After the euphoria surrounding the Chelsea game, we had to refocus and regroup for our U.S. Open Cup semifinal against Houston. We knew the Dynamo would be motivated for the game because we had beaten them in league play just 10 days earlier. We were motivated by the opportunity to make the final in our inaugural season. After 89 minutes of play, we were a goal down and heading out. But just before the final whistle, after constant pressure and several squandered chances, Nate Jaqua scored a goal to send the game into overtime. That goal took a lot out of Houston, and it didn't take us long to take the lead in overtime. I managed to assist on the winning goal scored by Stephen King (our leading scorer in the Open Cup). Despite taking a red card late, we managed to hold on to claim our spot in the Sept. 2 final, in which we will face D.C. United.

To have a chance to win a trophy in my rookie season is great, but ever since I arrived in Seattle, the club has had a championship mindset, so we don't feel privileged to be in the final, it's something we knew we could do. We do not feel like an expansion side, and so we are trying to win both the Open Cup and MLS Cup in our first year. These expectations begin with ourselves, but they spread through to the fans and the entire city. This puts more pressure on the players, and so we have to find ways to deal with this pressure.

One of the ways in which a few teammates and I deal with pressure is by playing little practical jokes on one another to keep the mood light at training. For example, sometime last week while I was taking a shower, Fredy Montero walked in with a huge grin on his face, so I knew something was up. Moments later, Osvaldo Alonso ran toward me with a Gatorade bucket filled with ice-cold water. I knew what was coming next. There was no way to escape it because as much as I pleaded with him not to, he and Fredy had cornered me. He tipped the bucket over my head and laughed as I shivered and yelled for him to stop.

These little things happen on a daily basis, and they definitely keep the mood light between the players and help us to get away from the pressure that comes with the job.

Until next time ...

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