CARSON, Calif. – Gyasi Zardes is mostly potential right now, an amalgamation of skills and tools and “starting points” that suggest – no, more than suggest – that he could be one of the great ones before he's done.
That's how he sees it, too. A little swagger never hurt an elite athlete, and Zardes has his share, but it's what he tempers it with – humility and the kind of work ethic that complements talent in the best of the best – that has those around him excited about what kind of player he could become.
The LA Galaxy rookie, 22, has already made an impact. He's started the last 17 league matches, at first partnered primarily with Robbie Keane up front, but as a left-sided midfielder over the past month and a half. And if the end product isn't quite there yet, what is present is, at times, breathtaking.
Zardes, who signed a Homegrown player deal with the Galaxy last December after his junior season at Cal State Bakersfield, has all the physical tools – size, strength and a sprinter's speed – and a thinking man's approach to the game. He has a knack for getting into the right spots and increasingly knows what to do when he gets there. With more precision, he could be a star.
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“His starting point was good, because he came in as a young, hungry, willing-to-learn athlete. Never felt he knew it all,” Galaxy associate head coach Dave Sarachan told MLSsoccer.com. “He's a complete open book, which is a quality to have. And like all players, but especially young players, from where he started to where we are we've seen maybe a zig-zag graph, but the drop-off points have been less and less, and the experiences that he's now banked are paying some dividends in many ways.
“There's still, by his own admission, a long ways to go. But his attitude and his willingness to learn and be better is a great quality he brings.”
Zardes grew up in Hawthorne, just a few miles west of the Galaxy's StubHub Center digs, and played in LA's academy during his teens. The club had interest in signing him before he went off to Bakersfield, and they finally inked him after he netted 38 goals in three seasons – 33 in his last 37 college games – while leading the Roadrunners program to prominence.
“I've always wanted to play for the Galaxy,” Zardes told MLSsoccer.com. “That was the initial thought [when I went to Bakersfield]: 'If I excel and do well in college, I know the Galaxy will always offer another contract.' That's what I kept in the back of my head, and I'm glad it worked out the way I thought it would work out.”
It provided an optimal situation, working with a superb staff led by one of the best coaches American soccer has ever known, alongside two of the finest finishers in the world's game.
“I take as much advice as I can get from Robbie and Landon [Donovan]. It doesn't get any better than playing with the best strikers in America,” Zardes said. “There's so much to learn each and every single day of training when I'm playing with them, and I try to learn as much as I can while I have this opportunity.”
He's improved steadily this year, learning how to make his speed more dangerous, how to read the game and make the right tactical decisions, and how best to combine with teammates and create better goal opportunities. He's scored three goals – probably should have three times that many – but the “end product,” it is hoped, will come soon.
“He's getting better. It's a process, and I think he's improving,” head coach Bruce Arena said. “He's very bright, he communicates well. He's a hard worker. He learns from his mistakes, which is important as well. He's got a ways to go, but he's certainly had a number of very good games for us, so he's moving along.”
Zardes says his biggest growth has been in his ability to see things on the field. When he began training with the Galaxy in January, “I was kind of sluggish and slow; like, when I got the ball, I held onto it for too long, and a defender came and took it away. Now I know when a defender is going to come to me and how to use my teammates.”
Zardes always has been a thinker on the field, always watching other, better players and working to add what was special about their games into his. That's one of the qualities the Galaxy liked about him during his time in the Academy, in which he played for the U-18, U-20 and U-23 teams, and at Bakersfield.
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“In our mind, there were a lot of good starting points that we thought would translate to the pro level,” Sarachan said. “There were a lot of moments in his collegiate career that showed an intellect, not just the use of his physicality, which at this level you can only go so far with. There has to be a thinking component, and I think he's brought that.”
Zardes' speed is his greatest tool, the one that makes a difference, and Sarachan notes that he's “always going to be a threat on the run because of his speed and his length. He's long and lean and he covers ground, so there's going to be moments within games where he finds himself in a footrace, and those moments we like, because generally he'll win those.”
Now it's about “the end product that we know and he knows needs to be more consistent.”
It's coming, Zardes says.
“I'm constantly working on it, that last key aspect in my game: to put the ball in the back of the net,” he said. “I'm finding myself in all these positions to score, now it's applying [what I've learned] and getting the job done, scoring that goal.”
Once that becomes part of his game, watch out. The possibilities are enticing, and he knows it.
“I really think I can be an amazing player,” Zardes said. “It's all about the hard work I put in, and over the years I just know I will be like Landon Donovan, like Robbie Keane. A guy that's a forward that can put the ball in the back of the net, that you can count on him to score goals for your team.”