By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 9, 2013) US Soccer Players - Gyasi Zardes wasn’t supposed to be this crucial. Supremely gifted with speed and trickery, the Los Angeles Galaxy’s 22-year old rookie Homegrown Signing was supposed to learn in training, maybe pick up the odd start or two when Robbie Keane or Landon Donovan needed a breather, and take the slow growth path befitting a player with raw talent but an underdeveloped understanding of the game.
But through injury and circumstance, Zardes is now a regular fixture in the Galaxy lineup. Not at forward, his natural position and the spot he was supposed to grow into while learning from two of the league’s best, but on the wing as a surprise regular during LA’s stretch run. The adjustment hasn’t been easy, and at times Zardes looked out of his depth. Still, with Robbie Rogers injured and the Galaxy’s other options not meeting Bruce Arena’s standards, Zardes’s “sink or swim” moment has resulted in a sustained period of floating followed by a breakout showing on Sunday.
Against admittedly weak competition in Chivas USA, Zardes’s promise visibly blossomed. Playing on the left wing, Zardes set up an early chance for Robbie Keane (that the Irishman shockingly missed), played another ball that Landon Donovan turned back to the Keane for the game’s first goal, fed Donovan again for the game’s second tally, and fired home the third Galaxy goal in a 5-0 romp himself.
Although each successful attack Zardes engineering for a teammate came via essentially the same move - using his speed to push the ball past a shell-shocked Chivas defender, then stinging a cross through the six-yard box for a streaking Donovan to latch onto - it was done effectively and consistently. Those were descriptors Zardes rarely earned in previous appearances, where his talent was often lost to erratic play.
There’s no doubting Zardes’s immense potential. It’s there, plain as day, every time he bombs towards the opponents net with the his trademark confidence streaming behind him like a effervescent swagger trail. He’s often the fastest the player on the field. His athleticism can be jaw-dropping. Occasionally, he drags the ball around a defender or shakes one out of his shoes and the ceiling on Zardes rises just a hair. That’s a stunning thing, considering the ceiling Zardes himself set when he joined the Galaxy.
Zardes signed with the Galaxy in December. Even before his Galaxy debut, the former Cal State Bakersfield Roadrunner made grand pronouncements about his talent.
“In my eyes, I think I would’ve gone No. 1,” he said ahead of the draft in January. At one point, he proclaimed “my skill is going to blow your mind.” Everything about Zardes’s entry into MLS screamed overcooked hype, fostered by his seemingly boundless confidence, his truly stellar goal scoring record in college (38 goals in three years), and reports that doubled down on both.
It’s no coincidence that Zardes’s minutes picked up considerably immediately after the Galaxy traded Mike Magee to the Chicago Fire for the rights to winger Robbie Rogers. Zardes filled in at forward, stepping in to the lineup and pushing Donovan to midfield while Rogers returned to fitness. When Donovan and Keane left for international duty - a protracted absence for Donovan due to the Gold Cup - Zardes remained a regular option for Bruce Arena up top.
Those early starts revealed that Zardes was far from the finished product, and that much of his bluster youthful exuberance. Zardes was a talented athlete, but hardly an effective soccer player. His decision making was poor, his delivery of crosses and ability to combine with teammates lacking. He had moments, blinding white flashes of his talent, but they came few and far between. As a natural forward, Zardes never met a shot he didn’t like. He’s taken 71 to this point in the MLS season, leading the Galaxy by a wide margin. Nineteen have found the target, netting Zardes four goals.
Then, Arena settled on playing Zardes in a wide midfield spot, farther from goal and with additional responsibilities.
Perhaps harshly, the 22-year old continues his on the job education, out of position, while trying to fill the shoes of a player who exhibited a consistent knack for popping up in the right place at the right time. The cruelty of Zardes’s insertion into the lineup of a two-time defending MLS champion is made all the worse because he’s the latest player to attempt to replace the departed Mike Magee. The inequity of the Magee-for-Rogers trade and Arena’s hunt for a player to step into the midfield supplier/poacher role Magee played with aplomb in LA, heightens focus on Zardes’s development.
Considering that very little else has changed for a team that won MLS Cup titles in 2012 and 2013 outside of the Magee’s departure, the pressing question as the playoffs approach is whether the Galaxy will miss Magee to the point of failure. Or, if Zardes can grow up quickly enough to make everyone forget a key cog in LA’s championship machine is no longer in place.
It won’t get easier from here. For everything Magee did for the Galaxy’s back-to-back title teams during the regular season, it was his playoff contributions that often made the difference between the club moving on or bowing out. If Zardes can take to his unfamiliar wing position in time to be truly effective against quality MLS opponents in the playoffs by serving as provider for Keane and Donovan, that’s just one part of the equation. Magee made goals happen from nothing, when the Galaxy’s big guns were out of the play or out of ideas. He was “clutch” in a way statistics say doesn’t exist but Galaxy fans will tell you is very real.
It’s unfair to expect Gyasi Zardes to be that player, when his professional soccer career is just beginning and his talents are so obviously unrefined. Then again, maybe Sunday was a glimpse that Zardes can be enough of a threat to complement Donovan and Keane in a way that can still see the Galaxy end up with a championship trophy in the cabinet.
With the playoffs looming, Galaxy fans can only hope.
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