As the 2013 MLS season was winding down, one young player was proving to be more than a bit of a handful for opposing teams, so much so that murmurs began about his deserving a chance to prove his worth on the international stage. That call up never materialized, but the 2014 MLS season has seen Gyasi Zardes emerge as one of the most exciting young American talents at striker in the league. With his two goals against the Rapids last Friday night, Zardes upped his tally to 14, most among American-born players in the league this season.
Additionally, Zardes pounced on a misplayed ball in the penalty area, only to be scythed down for a Landon Donovan penalty. Zardes’ performance against (admittedly 10 man) Colorado highlighted attributes sorely missing from the American national team, attributes that should result in his first caps this October for Jürgen Klinsmann’s senior squad. His performances this season, and last night in particular, warrant a closer look at what Gyasi Zardes can bring to the American national team, as well as the deficiencies in his game that could derail his international career in short order.
Zardes has exhibited athleticism that is at an elite level repeatedly over the past two MLS seasons. He regularly displays excellent speed, able to beat opposing defenders to the ball time and again from anywhere on the pitch. Zardes’ also displays enough quickness to make a touch or two to buy enough space to lash a shot on target, usually with the ball ending up in the back of the net. As a physical presence, Zardes is not nearly as imposing as Jozy Altidore. Rarely does Gyasi impose his will on defenders, thundering towards net while shouldering centerbacks aside. Gyasi is far more a finesse player, moving constantly to find open shots and enough space to turn a cross into a shot on goal. This trait, in fact, may be the most dangerous aspect of Zardes’ game. His off the ball movement and placement is extraordinary. There are few times where Zardes find himself out of position, helpless to assist in the attack.
In the buildup to his first goal against Colorado, Gyasi visibly made a move towards a cross that careened behind him, thought better of it, whirled around his marker, running onto to a perfect return touch pass that he buried inside the far post. Zardes regularly produces goals in this manner, maneuvering himself to the open spot, then calmly finishing a cross or incisive pass to add another tally to his total. Zardes is capable of more than only making smart runs in the attacking third, however. In addition to being in the right place at the right time, Zardes has mastered the art of heading the ball for yet another goal for the Galaxy. Time and again, fans watch a cross curl into the box, only to be redirected past the keeper by a giant slash of bleached blonde hair.
Via his head or his foot, Gyasi finds a way to cut through the defense and punish them for a brief moment of inattention. These skills make Gyasi Zardes a perfect candidate for Jürgen Klinsmann’s spoken desire to make the American national team a formidable power via the 4-3-3. Zardes provides a mobile, slippery, skillful forward target for crosses from the wings, as well as through balls from the attacking midfielder in Klinsmann’s preferred setup. Despite these wonderful skills, however, there are some areas for concern.
While Zardes possesses a wonderful allotment of talents that will serve him well, he does have more than his fair share of flaws. Zardes’ game is predicated upon service from the flanks and from a creative presence behind him on the pitch, which he has in abundance with the talented Galaxy midfield and forwards. Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan provide more than enough creative spark to spring Zardes free on goal. As it stands now, however, there is a limited amount of talent in Klinsmann’s pool with the traits necessary to provide the attacking verve needed for Zardes to be threatening going forward.
The runs and headers that provide so many of his tallies are for naught without the necessary passes at the proper time. Opportunities in the attacking third are extremely scarce at the international level, with the windows for making those opportunities count measured in fractions of a second. Until the right attacking talent emerges for the American national team, Zardes is very much at risk of being invisible in the attacking third, especially given his most glaring deficiency.
Zardes’ pace, positioning and thunderous headers make him an ideal target forward, yet his lack of even adequate technical ability is a serious obstacle to his success on the international stage. Zardes is at his best when making at most two touches, then shooting. His first touch is below average, and his dribbling abilities leave quite a bit to be desired. In an attacking unit featuring extraordinarily skilled players on the wings and in midfield, these issues disappear quite nicely.
Yet, with a new cycle beginning and the most successful American players ever aging or retiring, this dream scenario is exactly that. The only surefire starters heading into next year’s Gold Cup are Fabian Johnson and Michael Bradley. Every other position in the new American team is completely unsettled, with multiple candidates vying for a starting nod. As a result, Zardes’ success is nearly entirely in the hands of those around him.
Should players like Mikkel Diskerud and Joseph Gyau prove capable of handling the technical duties necessary to provide great service, Zardes may in fact be one of the most dangerous goal scorers the United States has ever produced. If proper attacking talent fails to develop, however, Zardes may become yet another budding star who fails to produce on the international level, never climbing above a spot in MLS or a similar league. At the very least, young Mr. Zardes has shown he deserves the opportunity to prove his abilities in one or both of the October friendlies. While he may not be the perfect answer to the American struggles in the attacking third, he may be exactly what the national team needs: a lethal finisher who scores goals in bunches. A player converting just over a quarter of his total shots into goals demands an opportunity to do the same internationally. The Ecuador match in Hartford beckons.