“Yeah, it gets cold here.”
From the outside, Gyasi Zardes appears to be a walking embodiment of the Los Angeles ethos. A Southern California native who hadn’t lived outside the Golden State before his trade to Columbus Crew SC this winter, the LA Galaxy Homegrown product’s easy smile, signature bottle-blond hairstyle, prominent community service activities and relentlessly sunny outlook are by now well-known to most US soccer fans.
Yet even after the interruption of a lifetime of warm West Coast vibes, that genial, fleeting acknowledgment of central Ohio’s markedly snappier climate is about as negative as it got from Zardes in a conversation with MLSsoccer.com this week.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” he said of his offseason move, “so when I got word that I was being traded to Columbus, I was excited. I was looking forward to a new journey and kind of like a fresh start with a new group of guys that I’ll have to get to know.”
It turns out there was ample justification for that optimism.
With a co-league-leading three goals in this young campaign, he’s already – in two games – eclipsed his 2017 total of two in 24 league appearances. Just a few months from an injury-blighted turn as an ill-suited utility man during the Galaxy’s worst-ever season, Zardes looks invigorated as the spearhead of Gregg Berhalter’s fluid, methodical attack. And first-place Crew SC are 2-0, including a high-profile dismembering of the reigning league champs Toronto FC on opening day, ahead of this weekend’s visit to Philadelphia (2 pm ET | MLS LIVE).
“I love everything about Columbus Crew and the coaching staff, because they make things so clear,” said Zardes. “Gregg, [assistants] Nico [Estevez], Josh [Wolff], Pat [Onstad] – when I’m attacking I know what’s expected of me and I know what I need to do. When I’m defending, it’s the same thing. I know what position I need to be in, I know when I need to press. But also on set pieces, which is very important, where players tend to turn off, Pat helps us stay alert, and also understanding our position and role.
“This team is so great and they rely a lot of statistics as far as the data that’s being scanned every day by Steve [Tashjian, Crew SC's sports science director]. It’s crazy, the coaching staff and the physical trainers, they all work together as a unit and I think that correlates with the team working together as a unit.”
A richly-hyped American youngster when he signed his Homegrown deal with the Galaxy in 2012, Zardes stormed into prominence with a 16-goal haul in 2014 as LA won their fifth and most recent MLS Cup title, thriving as Robbie Keane’s strike partner.
Unfortunately for Zardes, it would take him three-plus years to bag his next 16, with long stretches spent out on the wing and last season even at right back for a bit, a move that can charitably be described as a left-handed compliment from coach Sigi Schmid, who simultaneously and vocally expressed his desire for new attacking options.
As Zardes himself says: “I’m a striker.”
While few reputations emerged intact from the Galaxy’s painful 2017, Zardes seemed to come in for extra slating, perhaps because of his added visibility as a US national teamer. His scoring droughts and mellow nature probably made him an easier target, and “Zardes first touch” became something of a meme in some quarters of social media.
Considering all that, the steadfast faith shown by Berhalter and Crew SC is remarkable. They met the trade request of their prolific leading scorer, Ola Kamara, to acquire Zardes and allocation money in January. They’ve made clear that Zardes is their starting No. 9, and that they see him as a frontrunner first and foremost – the closer to goal, the better. And they fed him, providing a steady stream of service just like the ones that Kamara and his predecessor Kei Kamara feasted on.
“Last year was difficult for him, I think, for a number of reasons, including injury, playing different positions, potentially playing out of position,” said Berhalter of Zardes at the end of preseason. “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.”
Like an uptown loft stripped down for minimalist millenial tastes, Zardes has been a model of efficiency and simplicity thus far. He netted six goals in five preseason games. He completed seven of 11 passes vs. Toronto, with one goal on three shots and no dribbles. Against Montreal he was 7/13 with his passes, with two goals on four shots, again no dribble.
A scant handful of recoveries, clearances, fouls drawn and conceded over the 180 minutes. All three goals first-time finishes, one an injury-time penalty kick – that one the game-winner against the Impact, put into his hands by usual taker Federico Higuain with the match on the line. That last part may be particularly striking to MLS observers who remember the incident that led to Kei Kamara being shipped out of town, a public, in-game quarrel over PK-taking duties in May 2016.
Unlike in LA, Zardes has been given a single, straightforward role with clear direction, expectations and support. He’s there to finish chances. Period.
“I mean, it’s the clarity of the game,” Zardes, who's now 26 and a family man with two young children at home, said. “The coaches help clarify what’s expected of our opponent and what’s expected of us when we step on that field … They do whatever they can to get the best out of their players and it’s remarkable to see, but it’s even better to be a part of that now.”
Zardes also credits full health – he underwent knee surgery and endured various other afflictions last year – and the USMNT’s January camp, an event that's attracted almost as much criticism as he has over the years.
“I’m trying to remember the last time I was completely healthy without any surgeries the whole year, without any injuries,” he said. “At the start of this year – knock on something – I’ve been healthy. And any player can tell you that when you’re healthy going into a season, you gain more confidence, you’re playing at a higher level.
“And I’m always thankful to get called into a January US national team camp, because that’s like a preseason head start. While other players can’t even meet with their teams, I’m already training at a high level. And once I came to Columbus, understanding my role here, constantly working hard and communicating with the coaches and what they expect of me, I owe a lot of success to them.”
Can Zardes make a run at the MLS Golden Boot? It’s mighty early, but worth noting that Crew SC's lead striker has finished in the top six in scoring the past three years running. He and his new team look like MLS Cup contenders regardless.
But don’t expect too much talk on these topics from Zardes, who seems to have adopted a very Cali sense of Zen to gird him through the peaks and valleys of life in this trade.
“I don’t try to think about anything I don’t have control of, because it’s unnecessary. I think it’s a waste of thought,” he said. “I’m constantly enjoying my soccer at the moment and just focusing on playing and getting better. That’s all I can control.”