CARSON, Calif. – Gyasi Zardes has been a difference-maker for the LA Galaxy the past month or so, scoring four goals – two equalizers, two winners – in his last four starts and five with an assist in his last six.
The second-year attacker, a rare combination of size, speed, skill, strength and savvy, has taken some giant steps this year on his path toward expected stardom, and his latest strides coincide with his return to his favored position.
Zardes is up front again for the Galaxy (5-3-5), and he's demonstrating great growth in his ability to recognize opportunities, exploit space and turn opportunities into something truly meaningful.
"I feel like I'm getting more confident with the more games I play because just playing in those games creates repetition for myself and builds chemistry with my teammates," said Zardes, who will look to score in his third successive league game Friday night against the Portland Timbers (4-5-8) at StubHub Center (11 pm ET; MLS Live). "… I'm seeing more opportunities. I don't know if it's the opposing teams' defense, but I'm seeing more slots, more channels that are open."
It's generating chances for the Galaxy, who used Zardes at forward last year until moving him to the flank at the end of summer. He played on the wings again this year, as a starter or off the bench, until moving up top when Robbie Keane was away with Ireland's national team a month ago.
"Instinctually, it's a little easier for him as a forward," associate head coach Dave Sarachan said. "When we've used him in spots wide, it requires a little of experience and there's a little more thinking involved that maybe doesn't come as natural for him. I think [playing on the wing] becomes a little bit cloudy at moments. Up front, he's more comfortable and can use his instincts a little better."
And Zardes has become much more efficient in the final third. Last year, he scored four MLS goals on 78 shots, just 23 of them on target. This year, he has three league goals on 16 shots, four on frame.
He scored in the 1-1 draw with Chivas USA on June 8, netted two more to beat Arizona United, 2-1, 10 days later in the U.S. Open Cup, then finished a beautiful sequence to beat San Jose, 1-0, last weekend. He got his first goal of the year, and his lone assist, in a victory over FC Dallas on May 21.
"Confidence, for sure," said Landon Donovan. "… I think Gyasi in preseason and when we started the year was very confident and played very well. He went through a stretch for a few games where his confidence waned, and subsequently he didn't play as well. And now he's got some goals under his belt [and] he's playing well. He gives us a dimension we don't have with anyone else.”
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Head coach Bruce Arena said Zardes has benefited from experience and improved technically but "has a way to go."
"[Development is] definitely not a straight line," Arena said. "There's peaks and valleys and, hopefully, more peaks, and then eventually a steady line at some point. And he's grasping all of this and dealing with the ups and downs."
Sarachan said his execution is still lacking the needed consistency.
"So whether it's the moments when he can get a cross across the goal or when he can make runs into the box, the timing of those runs, that stuff, there's still room for improvement,” he said. “But I think he's recognizing those moments. Now it's a matter of executing those moments when they come."
That's Zardes' plan.
"I always tell myself to work even harder, because I can't be complacent with the success," he said. "I've got to keep working and getting better, because [complacency is] how players fail."
Scott French covers the LA Galaxy for MLSsoccer.com.