MLS Cup - 2020 - zardes profile

Gyasi Zardes is back in MLS Cup, and he, MLS and the world at large have changed a lot since last time.

That was back in 2014, when a young Zardes racked up 16 goals in his second year as a professional with his hometown LA Galaxy, then added another in MLS Cup as the club completed their “drive for five” with an extratime win over the New England Revolution on home turf.

HIGHLIGHTS: MLS CUP 2014 - LA Galaxy vs. New England Revolution | December 7, 2014

Few would’ve predicted at the time he would have to wait six years to make a return, or that the laid-back Homegrown from Hawthorne would do so with a diametrically different club, via a winding personal journey. Back then Gyasi and his wife Madison’s first child, their son Gyan, was a toddler. Today Gyan is 6, with a fledgling soccer habit of his own, and he’s been joined by three younger siblings, first sisters Maylie and Maisie, then Gyson, the most recent arrival in September, heartland kids growing up in central Ohio.

“I come from a family with five kids,” Zardes, now 29, told on Wednesday as the countdown to MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium began in earnest. “I always wanted to have kids young, so that they can watch me do what I love to do, while I’m playing professional soccer. But also four was like a dream number, two boys and two girls. I’m done though, I’m done having kids! But that was definitely the dream, two boys and two girls – you can have the best of both worlds.”

Gyan is now old enough to take an active interest in his dad’s career, even making occasional critiques when they watch match and training footage together.

“He loves the game of soccer and we talk a lot about some of my training clips and even some of my games,” explained dad with a grin. “He's always like ‘aw Daddy, why’d do you do that there?’ So it's pretty cool because he's getting to that age where he's understanding the game even more as well.”

That’s a different type of feedback, even for a player who’s grown accustomed to harsh criticism from fans and pundits over the years. Having risen from the rough neighborhoods of his youth – Zardes once called Hawthorne “a place to fail,” and prayed daily he would find a way out – to a distinguished career for both club and country, he’s got plenty to rub in the faces of the proverbial haters in the unlikely event it would ever be worth his time.

“I always think it's funny, man, the critics out there,” he said. “Everybody's entitled to their own opinion, but I laugh about it. Where I grew up, you have to have thick skin, you can't let words get to you. So I'm thankful for my upbringing, and me and my son, we joke about a lot of things.”

As previously documented in this space, Zardes has remained remarkably unbothered by his detractors over the years, even when the negativity peaked during a brutal 2017 capped by his exit from the Galaxy and a diminished role with the US national team. He found new life in Columbus, scoring consistently in his optimal tactical deployment and enjoying a great deal more postseason success than his former club have since he left.

Besides, even on his worst days, there’s a house full of tiny humans waiting to clear his head the minute he walks in the door.

“Four little ones, all over the ages six and under – it can be chaotic sometimes, but at the same time, it's incredible just to see them grow and see them play with each other and also their friends in our little neighborhood,” he said, hailing his wife’s pivotal role as technical director of the household.

“Having kids at a young age helped me mature a lot, because I wasn't only thinking about myself anymore,” added Zardes. “Once I leave the soccer field, it's family. Whatever my family wants to do or whatever I can do to help them, whether it's spending hours with my son practicing math or reading books, whether it's with my daughter doing gymnastics or doing dance, or even playing soccer, it just becomes family time once I leave this field, and I'm thankful for it because it helps me take a lot of things off my mind. Say for example, if something's not going my way during training, once I get home I don't even focus on it because obviously I have a family to take my mind off of things.”

That eye-catching streak of bleach-blond hair, which Zardes famously adopted many years ago to make it easier for his grandparents to pick him out on the pitch, remains from the old days, as does the quick smile and relentlessly positive attitude. His soccer skillset, however, has evolved dramatically, particularly since he joined Crew SC.

Liberated from the utility-man duties he was often saddled with in LA, Zardes has spent the past three years honing the tools of a pure No. 9, first under Gregg Berhalter and then Caleb Porter. His movement has grown cleverer, his decision-making crisper, his finishing sharper. He does still miss chances now and again, but that resilient mentality endures, powered by an indefatigable work ethic, keeping him focused on the future. He's also a USMNT regular again, trusted by his former club coach.

Asked what guides his ongoing quest for his best self, he points to an even simpler quality: listening.

“Most importantly, I just try to be a player that’s coachable,” said Zardes. “I try to stay humble, I try to work hard. I try to listen to what my coaches have to say about my game and I try to learn as much as I can, and also my teammates, man – I listen to even, like, some rookies. I can learn a lot from these guys.

“I really think my teammates and my coaching staff have made me become better each and every single year.”

The hotshot kid is now the voice of reason in the locker room, urging the Crew to get it done one more time on Saturday (8:30 pm ET | TV & streaming info), so they, too, can feel what it’s like to hoist the Phillip F Anschutz Trophy high.

“I'm constantly talking to these guys – and it's not just me that has championship experience, there's a couple of guys on our team that’ve won championships and finals – but I'm just trying to be as positive as possible. This is the last game of a tiring year,” he said.

“We've been through so much this year and it all comes down to this final game. We've achieved every single goal that we set this year and we just have one left. And it’s the last game of the year, so we have to give it all we have, but at the same time, we can't let emotion drive this game, we have to have the right balance and we have to do what we do best.”