Editor's Note: This article originally ran on MLSsoccer.com on Oct. 23.



CARSON, Calif. – Gyasi Zardes made quite the first impression on MLS.


At the 2013 MLS SuperDraft in Indianapolis, a month or so after he signed a Homegrown Player contract with the LA Galaxy – the team he’d cheered on ever since he can rememberZardes bragged that he would have been the top pick if available.

Mindblower: How Gyasi Zardes put down the mic and grew into MLS's top young striker -

Then he dropped this little bombshell: “My skill is just going to blow your mind.”
(WATCH VIDEO HERE)

Over on the West Coast, about 100 miles north of LA, Simon Tobin cringed.


Tobin, the head coach at Cal State Bakersfield, had watched Zardes grow into a man in his four years there, and he knew such brash utterings were uncharacteristic for the then-21-year-old. Tobin knew Zardes as the shy kid with a big smile, the sweet kid everybody loved.



Keith Costigan, another of Zardes’ coaches, said he was a sincere workaholic who “wasn't a kid that on Friday and Saturday night was worrying about what party he was going to. He was worried about what he was going to do Sunday morning to make him a better player.”


To them, he was the thankful kid, the responsible kid. Not the braggart.

Mindblower: How Gyasi Zardes put down the mic and grew into MLS's top young striker -

“If anybody knows Gyasi, anyone at all, he's one of the most humble, nicest kids,” Tobin said. “He's confident in his own ability, but he isn't that kid.”

Zardes had ruffled some in the Galaxy clubhouse, too, and when he arrived for his first Galaxy preseason a few days later, the message was to cool it.


It was a lesson learned. And he's said nothing the least controversial since.


But here's the thing: Everything he said that day – No. 1 pick, mind-blowing skill – was absolutely correct. And he knows it.


And the world might find out before long.


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Mindblower: How Gyasi Zardes put down the mic and grew into MLS's top young striker -

Now 23, Zardes is a rare talent, boasting size (a sturdy 6-foot-2), strength, standout athleticism, sensational pace, silky ball skills and growing tactical savvy. In his second professional season, it has translated into a massive breakout: 16 goals, good for sixth-best in MLS, and a chief role next to Robbie Keane up top for the Galaxy as they battle the New England Revolution in the MLS Cup final at StubHub Center (3 pm ET on ESPN, UniMas, UDN, TSN1, RDS2).


Zardes has turned heads not just with his goal haul. It's how he scores them – elegant strikes and opportunistic finishes alike – and just about everything else he does on the field: the clever runs, the off-the-ball movement, the ability to connect teammates, the defensive acumen.

Mindblower: How Gyasi Zardes put down the mic and grew into MLS's top young striker -

It's led to US national-team chatter that he could, if the progression continues, be one of the Yanks’ go-to stars at the World Cup in Russia four years from now. No less than
Landon Donovan
says that Zardes has “got the potential” to do just that.

“Really, the sky's the limit, because he physically has all the tools,” said Donovan, one of Zardes' chief mentors with the Galaxy. “Oftentimes with young kids, you don't get the mental part right, and he's got the mental part right. And the last piece mentally is developing into a winner all the time, eventually into a leader – someone who is relied upon and carries the team – and there's no doubt in my mind those two pieces will come with experience.


“He's humble, he works hard, he cares and he's a great teammate,” added the retiring USMNT legend. “There's no reason he can't go as high as he wants.”



It’s been Zardes' dream since before he hit adolescence.


He grew up in Hawthorne, just a few miles west of the Galaxy's StubHub Center headquarters, with a soccer ball at his feet. He'd started playing at age 4, in AYSO, following his three older brothers onto the field and, in just his second season, posting obscene goal totals.

Mindblower: How Gyasi Zardes put down the mic and grew into MLS's top young striker -

“They were all ball-chasers,” said Glenn Zardes, Gyasi's dad. “They didn't know what they were doing, they're just chasing the ball at that age. He just had a knack for getting the ball, taking it up the field and just shooting. That's all it really was at the time.”

Zardes found great joy in “scoring, like, eight goals a game,” he said, and was hooked. By the age of 9 he was serious, moving on to South Bay Force, a strong local youth club, and then playing for a team his father organized under the auspices of Santa Monica Soccer.


Glenn Zardes' background in the sport was, basically, raising four sons and a daughter who played.


“My dad learned as we learned,” said Zardes, who played in older age groups for three seasons and soon began playing in local Mexican leagues, too. “He bought [video] tapes, like German national team tapes, did the research and learned as much as you can, and he taught us.”


Meanwhile, Zardes studied players abroad, especially legendary Brazilian forward Ronaldo, as Zardes bounced among a few clubs, spending a year with legendary Southern California coach Cherif Zein at FC Barcelona in Pasadena, another year with Celtic in Cudahy, then returning to South Bay Force, where his coach was Paul Krumpe, a 1990 US World Cup veteran in charge of Loyola Marymount University's men's program.



The Galaxy Academy recruited Zardes to play in a tournament, and he stuck, playing under Trevor James and Warren Barton. That's where he met Costigan, known by most as a Fox Soccer commentator, but also a former pro player and a top coach in Southern California.


It became one of Zardes' most important relationships in the game.

Mindblower: How Gyasi Zardes put down the mic and grew into MLS's top young striker -

“Keith knew exactly where I came from,” Zardes said. “He knew my family on a personal level, and he wasn't scared to speak his mind. And he's smart, and he knows professionals and what it takes to become a professional, and he didn't let me sit. He pushed me every single day to the point where I wanted to scream back at him. And it's hard to get me to that point, but, man, he got the best out of me.”


When it came time to choose a college, Zardes chose Costigan’s alma mater Bakersfield, which was transitioning to become an NCAA Division I program, rather than sign with a school that wanted him to play soccer while kicking for the football team (with interest from Boise State, Penn State and Oregon State, among others).


Costigan promised “that if he came [to Bakersfield], we would work hard together, and I would put as much work in as he would to make himself a good player,” he said.


That's all Zardes needed to hear.


But he wasn't eligible his first year in 2009 – schoolwork, he admits, wasn't a priority until his junior year of high school – so he had to work on his game by himself. He embraced his classes, took jobs at Jamba Juice and Abercrombie & Fitch and learned how to live on his own. It proved to be a magical year.


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Mindblower: How Gyasi Zardes put down the mic and grew into MLS's top young striker -

“Once he got to school,” Tobin said, “he kind of embraced college life. This is a kid who, once he was on campus, everybody knew him. And this is before he became a bit of a star on the soccer team. This is when he was first there and not even playing. He's just got that gregarious personality, and he's just a kid that people like.”


Zardes needed a full season to find his footing, and then he started blowing minds. He scored 33 goals in 37 games in his last two seasons (2011 and 2012) before signing with LA, while being double-teamed most of his junior year. It was pretty clear he had something special.

Mindblower: How Gyasi Zardes put down the mic and grew into MLS's top young striker -

Tobin discovered this early in Zardes' freshman year during a five-a-side drill during a training session.


“He basically took over, and I walked away and thought, 'That kid right there is on a different level to anything I've had,’” said Tobin, who had been coaching nearly 25 years. “I thought, 'That's the best player I've ever been involved with.' Just seeing that, blimey, it was a jaw-dropping moment for me.”


Zardes took over the Roadrunners' upset of New Mexico in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament semifinals that year, scoring both goals (WATCH THEM HERE). The next year, he netted hat tricks in his first two games as a sophomore. The second one beat San Francisco, 3-1.


“That's probably been the most dominating performance I've seen in college soccer,” Tobin said. “He won the game singlehandedly. It was a hat trick that was beautiful to watch. In the college game, he would have torn anyone to shreds that day.”



The Galaxy wanted to sign Zardes after his All-American sophomore season, but he wanted one more season at Bakersfield to mature. He joined LA in December 2012 after a training stint at Liverpool and offers from Bundesliga clubs Freiburg and Nuremberg, then headed to Indianapolis a few weeks later as a special guest at the MLS SuperDraft.


That's where he made news: “My skill is just going to blow your mind.”


“He's a shy kid,” Costigan said. “If you know him, he's fine, but he's shy talking in public, and he told me he didn't know what else to say. … After he said the line, he thought, 'What did I just say?’”

Mindblower: How Gyasi Zardes put down the mic and grew into MLS's top young striker -

Said Zardes, “That's not who I am. I didn't realize it came off as cocky. I was just excited and tried to say anything that would make the people happy. I learned my lesson about saying stuff so boldly.”


He's been a dutiful scholar since, studying at the feet of Professors Keane and Donovan in particular.


“The veterans really took me under their wing,” said Zardes, who also took a big step when he married his college sweetheart during the offseason, then welcomed the birth of a son in May. “I tried to learn as much as I can. I always kept my ears open. I tried not to talk back. I just thought to myself, 'These guys have been playing professional soccer for years; I haven't. This is my first year, so just put your pride away and just listen.' And I still do that today because, at the end of the day, they're obviously speaking to me because they're trying to help me get better.”



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Mindblower: How Gyasi Zardes put down the mic and grew into MLS's top young striker -

In his first year with the Galaxy, Zardes missed the first month and a half of the season with a fractured fifth metatarsal, but soon started to see action. By summer, he was contributing, and he ultimately made 25 starts, including the team's two playoff games, mostly on the left flank.


He showed glimpses of something special, and he often showed up in dangerous positions. But his finishing was abysmal. He scored four goals but could have easily had a dozen.

Mindblower: How Gyasi Zardes put down the mic and grew into MLS's top young striker -

It wasn't for lack of trying. He works on finishing nearly every day after training.


“He's always had a great attitude,” Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena said. “He's a great kid, and on the training field he's worked on some of his weaknesses and notably his finishing. He's gotten much better there, and it's been an important part of his improvement this year. Certainly, I think he's turned out to be the best partner for Robbie Keane at this point in time, as well.”


Zardes scored his first goal this year on May 21 – LA has gone 15-3-7 since – and he didn’t stop, netting 14 times in one 15-game stretch. He's had four multi-goal games, including back-to-back two-goal outings in wins over Chivas USA and Colorado.


“He's getting in great spots, he's doing all the little things right, he's working hard, he's holding the ball for us, he's winning headers, he's chasing guys, and he's getting in front of goal,” Donovan said during Zardes' hottest stretch. “And then the ball gets there, he's scoring chances.”


The numbers are illuminating: Zardes put 23 of 78 shots on frame for four goals in 2013. This year it's 30 of 73 and four times as many in the net.


Keane's mentorship has been pivotal. The Irishman's every game is a masterclass in movement, and Zardes pays careful attention.


Mindblower: How Gyasi Zardes put down the mic and grew into MLS's top young striker -

“Just being on his case every day, whether it's good or bad,” Keane said, explaining his methods. “Just keep reminding him of certain things to do, and if he's not doing them, well, then I'll tell him he's not doing them. The more you tell people, the more it's going to click eventually, and it certainly has started to click with Gyasi.

“You've already seen in the last year how he's evolved as a player, and he's only going to get better. As long as he's willing to put in the hard work and listen to the people around him, he'll be fine. He has an eagerness to want to do well and want to score goals, and if he has that eagerness and that grit between his teeth and the bite that you need as a top athlete, he'll go a long way.”


It's not the mind-blowing skill, nor the size, speed and athleticism that will make the difference. It's his character and work ethic, according to the players and coaches who surround him.


“The stuff he says now – 'I thank my teammates' – that's not just what you're supposed to say,” Costigan said. “Gyasi really believes that.”



Galaxy associate head coach Dave Sarachan, another veteran of the US scene, agrees.


“He's a terrific person. He's very grounded, and he never gets ahead of himself,” said Sarachan. “Even in the run he's had this year, with the amount of goals and the success he's had, he's legitimate when he says he's still got more to learn. He's not there yet. He's a grounded kid who can see the big picture, realizes he's not the finished product – and that's a great quality.”


Scott French covers the LA Galaxy for MLSsoccer.com.

Mindblower: How Gyasi Zardes put down the mic and grew into MLS's top young striker -