The club’s first normal training of 2018 came Monday, and the session marked just the second day in town for Zardes, who was acquired by Columbus in January via a trade with the LA Galaxy in exchange for Ola Kamara.
The lack of familiarity hasn’t stopped the 26-year-old from feeling comfortable, however. After joining Crew SC from the US national team's January camp, Zardes made an immediate impact, scoring three times on the way to the club’s Carolina Challenge Cup win in Charleston.
“It always feels good to get some goals in, as a striker,” he said. “But most importantly, I want that to carry over into the regular season. I’m training day-in and day-out, giving it my all, so I’m hoping to progress as a player.”
Head coach Gregg Berhalter has made it clear that he’s comfortable with Zardes as his main striker, despite the attacker’s disappointing final three seasons with LA.
But rather than putting pressure on Zardes to perform, Berhalter is taking it off.
He said the rest of the team will be responsible for putting the striker in positions to score, and emphasized making Zardes comfortable in one position rather than LA’s strategy of moving him around.
“I don’t know one player that doesn’t benefit from having confidence; you always want to have confidence,” Berhalter said. “Last year was difficult for him, I think, for a number of reasons including injury, playing different positions, potentially playing out of position.
“So all we want to do is get him comfortable, put him in a position where we feel he can excel and then provide the pieces around him to help him do that.”
In 2014, Zardes succeeded as the Galaxy’s main target forward, scoring 16 goals in 32 appearances. But over the next three seasons, Zardes added just 14 total goals in 72 appearances, and had to deal with both injuries and public criticism from fans and coaches alike – including Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid saying the team needed a striker in the middle of the 2017 season.
Zardes said that didn’t bother him though, and he keeps his mind on soccer.
“I don’t really pay attention to things outside the field,” he said. “I just keep my focus on things here. If I give it my all, positive things will come.”
Instead, Zardes' motivation is mainly health-related. He said he’s sick of dealing with injuries, and has been trying to limit his “tendency to want to stay after training and work extremely hard and overdo it.”
His main goal for the 2018 season? It isn’t to score a certain number of goals or to win a certain number of games, but to simply stay healthy for a full season.
“You can’t take this for granted,” he said. “A lot of players take healthiness for granted, so I’m trying not to take it for granted and just give it my all day-in and day-out and complain less.”
Though Zardes may be outwardly focusing on health and soccer, Columbus captain Wil Trapp, who knows Zardes from various national team camps, thinks the striker has moved to a better situation in Columbus.
“He brings a hunger to that role that really will be important for us,” Trapp said. “I think he had that time in LA where there were some struggles and he wasn’t being fed, soccer-wise. Now you’re seeing him get service, score goals and the confidence is coming back. That’s great for us.”
Working with Berhalter and assistant coach Josh Wolff, Zardes said he’s constantly in a “battle” to grow and defend his starting spot.
He loves the Columbus system, which has developed a reputation for setting up its striker, and is “eager to win as many things here as possible” once he gets to know his teammates better.
“I’m constantly learning – which players like the ball at feet, which players like the ball into space, which players like to cross early and which players like to take their time,” he said. “I’m still kind of working on understanding my role here and my teammates. But it’s going to come; I just need to play more games with them.”
For a team that put Kei Kamara and Ola Kamara in the MLS Golden Boot race two years in a row, Zardes isn’t willing to make any predictions for his goal tallies. But can he be another contender for the scoring title?
“I hope so,” he said with a laugh.