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Gyasi Zardes looks to provide offense for Galaxy

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The Galaxy added some much-needed depth to its strike force this off-season the signing of two foreign players, veteran Canadian Rob Friend and young Brazilian Samuel.

But the team, which opened their 2014 MLS regular season against Real Salt Lake on Saturday night, might get a boost on offense from a more local source: Gyasi Zardes.

Zardes was one of the most highly touted prospects in Galaxy history when he was signed in December 2012. In the last two years of his college career at Cal State Bakersfield, Zardes scored 33 goals in 37 games, making him one of the most sought-after college strikers heading into the 2013 MLS draft.

The Galaxy selected Zardes and hoped his offense would transfer to the pros. But the Hawthorne native scored only four goals in 29 MLS games during his rookie season in 2013.

This preseason, Zardes, 22, scored three goals, including two game winners. The improvement caught the attention of Coach Bruce Arena, who hopes that Zardes will play a bigger role in 2014.

"His touch is a little bit better. ... He looks like a more experienced player at this point," Arena said.

Zardes showed flashes of talent his first season. He started 25 games, including two in the playoffs, and drew attention with his deft ball-handling skills and speed, often beating defenders down the flank then using his 6-foot-2 frame to strong-arm his way into the 18-yard box.

But he often missed his chances in front of the net. Out of his team-leading 78 shots last year, only 23 were on goal.

"Last season, once it came down to take a shot, it either went sky high or off the target," Zardes said. "The nerves get you your rookie season."

This year, he's going into the regular season with a new jersey number and more confidence. Zardes swapped No. 29 for No. 11, the same number worn by stars Gareth Bale of Real Madrid and Neymar of Barcelona. Those players, Zardes said, have a flair that makes them fun to watch.

After adapting to the speed of MLS play in his rookie year, Zardes learned this preseason how to move off the ball to get open. It has helped boost his confidence that he can score when the games really count.

And the 20 minutes of shooting drills he has put in every day after practice have helped calm him when it comes time to pull the trigger in a game.

"Having a year of experience really helps you," he said. "You know what to expect and you know how to train for the game."

One thing he has learned is to be ready to play two positions. He went into his rookie season as a forward, but switched to midfield, where he caused headaches for opposing defenders.

Arena likes playing him in both positions and has said Zardes will continue to do so this season.

Zardes seems ready to answer his coach's expectations.

"It doesn't matter. Wherever he puts me, I can play," he said.

james.barragan@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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