Gyasi Zardes thumbs up - Columbus Crew - September 19, 2020

Some pretty unflattering things have been said (or tweeted) about Gyasi Zardes over the years. Certain perceptions have proved extraordinarily persistent even as the easygoing striker has matured into a dependable, productive professional before our collective eyes.

In everyone’s defense, so it goes for many of the world’s top strikers. Johan Cruyff memorably roasted Pippo Inzaghi, a World Cup winner and three-time Serie A champ, with the iconic judgment that “actually he can’t play football at all. He’s just always in the right position.” Oasis frontman and Manchester City superfan Noel Gallagher once said Edin Dzeko was “rubbish at football, but great at goalscoring” and back in his native Sarajevo AS Roma’s captain was derisively dubbed Kloc (“lamppost”). Even the mighty Romelu Lukaku has weathered the same sort of “first touch” lambasting as Zardes.

There’s something about the subtler, more instinctive arts of the frontrunner that clouds evaluations and polarizes opinion. I suspect that even now, going on three years of sustained excellence with Columbus Crew SC, face goals and dank Soccer Twitter memes may be preventing some of us from fully comprehending the current state of affairs for the US men’s national team fanbase’s most popular scapegoat of the past several years.

Gyasi Zardes has become a stone-cold assassin. A study in unfussy, clinical minimalism in the No. 9 role. A leading contender in the Golden Boot and league MVP races. The spearhead of the runaway league leaders as this strange season enters its back half. His national team’s leading scorer in 2019. And, as he enters the final year of his third decade on earth, something approaching the honest-to-goodness fulfillment of his former teenage phenom self.

From John O’Brien to Freddy Adu to Jordan Morris, American soccer fans love to beat themselves up about sidetracked talents or un-maximized potential. Yet here we have a different sort of narrative.

A talented but incomplete prospect unearthed early in MLS’s Homegrown era, boosted and buffeted by the grinding wheels of fortune and form, even written off at one point or another, who eventually hones his rough edges into a specialized but highly effective weapon, perhaps not on Europe’s biggest stages but at a high level nonetheless. And a thoughtful, dedicated guy off the pitch, too.

Zardes has nine goals and three assists in 13 league games this season. Entering this week, he was scoring at a rate of 0.79 goals per 90 minutes, an extremely productive strike rate comparable to the MLS numbers posted by the likes of Robbie Keane, David Villa and Bradley Wright-Phillips – and a marked jump from his own career years to date, in 2014 and 2018 (0.60 and 0.58 G/90, respectively). Chris Wondolowski, the all-time MLS leading scorer whose personal arc is worth comparing to Zardes’, is running at 0.53 G/90.

By way of comparison, consider that Zardes’ G/90 bottomed out in 2017 with an infinitesimal rate of 0.09, as he was shuffled around the pitch to fill several roles in an annus horribilis for the LA Galaxy, the club that signed him as a Homegrown but eventually came to take him for granted, as a liability as much as an asset. His trade to Columbus seemed as much as anything like a relief for all parties, and central Ohio has provided a priceless opportunity for reinvention and renewal.

His teammates have lavished praise on him and his coach Caleb Porter said at the weekend that Zardes was in the best form of his life. It's hard to disagree.

Even if we concede that his current rate is likely to regress toward the mean over the next two months, it underlines what a tear he’s on, and should vanquish the idea that he was simply the prime beneficiary of Gregg Berhalter’s tactical setup. Nor is he as one-dimensional as some have made him out to be, even if his late-20s renaissance has been powered by a laser focus on what he’s best at and where he’s most effective.

He’s not a heavy-use passer, but he’s gotten better at bringing teammates into the game and averages a key pass every match or so. He doesn’t rack up gaudy mileage numbers, but he can press when called upon and knows how to do his part in the collective defensive work.

He’s not an ace dribbler but has over time crafted an advanced understanding of movement and space – a far more deadly tool in his spot, in this system – and routinely uses it to hoodwink defenders, either to carve out a chance for himself or drag them around so his colleagues can feast.

It surely helps that he’s surrounded by a very talented team in Columbus, with guys like Lucas Zelarayan, Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos providing service and distracting opponents – but they in turn are benefiting from Zardes’ effect on games, as we saw in Wednesday night’s win over Minnesota United.

Who’s the most valuable among them? Perhaps the league awards voters will shed some light on that come November.