Gyasi Zardes - fist pump - US national team

FAIRFAX, Va. — You probably already suspected this. But I can confirm that Gyasi Zardes has probably not read your tweets, Facebook posts or Instagram comments, and he won’t be doing so at any point in the near future. And it doesn't matter whether you’re praising him or — as is more common in certain corners of the American soccer internet — lamenting his continued centrality to the US men’s national team.

“Nahhh, usually not,” Zardes said as the USMNT prepared to train under mild autumnal sunshine on Wednesday afternoon at George Mason University. “I’m not the best with social media. I don’t really know how to work Twitter, I don’t have a Facebook. I have Instagram but all I do on Instagram is just post before a game and I never look at it again, just because I’m so busy. 

“Whether it’s with the team or after games, usually my primary focus is my family. So I never really have time to be on social media like some of the younger guys.”

As he and the US prepare for Friday's Concacaf Nations League opener against Cuba (7 pm ET | FS1), that’s probably for the best. If Columbus Crew SC’s affable striker were to check his proverbial menchies after some US games, he might encounter some strong stuff from the vocal contingent of USMNT watchers who have been driven to distraction by what they perceive to be his limited, at times even awkward displays at the international level.

There’s the first-touch jokes. The chuckles at confoundingly fortunate finishes like his Gold Cup strike vs. Guyana over the summer, where a defender’s attempted clearance caromed off an unsuspecting Zardes’ face and into the net. And grumbles about the influence of his relationship with Gregg Berhalter, who coached him to a career-best season in Columbus last year before departing for the national team.

Some label him a flat-track bully, capable of scoring against Concacaf’s lesser lights but not against elite opposition, though that ignores his goals against the Netherlands and Ecuador. With 10 career goals and nine assists overall, he’s averaging a very respectable 0.49 goals+assists per 90 minutes for the USMNT.

Those solid numbers track with his 0.53g/90 over the past two seasons with Columbus and exceed his career 0.37 g/90 rate in MLS (via 66 goals and 19 assists in 192 career MLS regular-season matches). Like Christian Pulisic, Zardes stands one assist away from becoming the second-fastest player to reach 10 total in USMNT history. If he wanted to respond to critics, he could also point to the 2015 All-Star nod and 2014 MLS Cup and 2017 Gold Cup titles on his playing resume.

He doesn’t, though. And whatever is said about him on the internet contradicts what he's heard at stadiums around the country.

“If it’s face to face, it’s always positive. Every stadium we go to, [fans] are extremely supportive,” Zardes said. “Whether I’m starting or coming off the bench they’re always saying positive things. So I definitely feel the presence of our supporting fans. That’s all I can really recall on a face-to-face basis.”

At age 28, the deceptively experienced Zardes is actually the sixth-oldest player on the current roster and fourth-most capped, and like many people in their late 20s is beginning that phase of life where his own priorities take a back seat. He and his wife Madison, his college sweetheart in their days at Cal State Bakersfield, have three children and all the hectic responsibilities that entails. He’s got IRL stuff to do.

Even if he didn’t, he’s much too smart to peek around the mental blinders most of the world’s top performers wear to keep their focus on the considerable tasks at hand.

“Usually when I come into camp, it’s based on what I’m doing with my club," Zardes said. "And when I arrive here, the only thing that matters is what the coach asks of me and whatever I can do to become a better player, and also whatever I can do to help my team get results. All the outside, those are factors that I can’t control. So I try to only do things that I can control.”

Zardes is by all accounts a very hard worker, a sunny and supportive teammate wherever he’s played and a true American Dream success story, ascending from humble circumstances in blue-collar Hawthorne, Calif. He’s relentlessly upbeat and unfailingly polite, a student of the game and the power of positive thinking.

He does, however, have enough pride and motivation to casually recall his Crew season scoring total from memory, hinting at steely depths under the surface.

“I don’t have the statistics in front of me – I like to base my opinion on facts,” he said on Wednesday. “I think I’ve been doing good, you know. This year, what was it, at the club level I think I have 13 goals in 28 games, something like that, I missed a couple games in Gold Cup. But I think I was right on track just like the year before, when I had 19. And for the national team, I kind of remember the goals, I really don’t keep track, but I’ve scored some goals this year and think I got a few assists. 

“I keep getting called in; that means I’m doing something right, you know?”

With Jozy Altidore sidelined by an unfortunately-timed calf injury, Zardes is competing against teenage talent Josh Sargent for the United States' No. 9 role. Given the upcoming itinerary of two games in five days in Washington and Toronto, he will almost certainly earn one more cap this month, if not two.

It’s another opportunity for a player whose luck has arrived consistently enough to get some credit for earning it. 

“First and foremost I hope Jozy gets healthy. He’s like a brother of mine,” said Zardes. “Also me and Josh view that the same way. Every day I come here, I’m trying to perform to the best of my ability and if I’m going to start I’m going to start, and if I’m coming off the bench I’m going to come off the bench. Whatever situation, I’m just going to give it my all.”

Zardes has Berhalter’s trust, his teammates', and plenty of his own as well. That’s enough for him, like it or not. 

“I’m just going to try to keep working on getting better,” said Zardes. “Every time I get called into camp I feel confident, just because I’m constantly learning and growing as a player, I’m trying to digest the knowledge that the coaches are presenting in front of me and just molding me into a better striker.”