You can follow Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes like he has a beacon on top of his head.
His blond mohawk certainly draws attention, but so do all the goals he’s scored in his breakout season with the Galaxy.
The 22-year-old Zardes is also the first homegrown product from the Galaxy Academy youth teams to have a major impact on the first team.
“It’s like a snowball going downhill,” said Peter Vagenas, academy director and former Galaxy player. “It’s gaining momentum and getting bigger each and every day, and … it’s a pretty fantastic project to be part of.”
Zardes (pronounced ZAR-des), who grew up in Hawthorne, started playing for Galaxy Academy U-18 teams, then starred at Cal State Bakersfield before making his pro debut with the Galaxy last year.
Before Wednesday night’s game, Zardes had scored 10 goals for the Galaxy this season on just 17 shots.
“The adjustments I had to make were just thinking faster,” Zardes said. “In college, you have a lot of time, and you can shoot from wherever — you have a chance of scoring. But here, everybody’s a professional, and it’s a whole different speed.”
Galaxy star Landon Donovan has watched Zardes’ game blossom.
“All of last year, people didn’t see it, but he was out here every day after practice working on his finishing,” Donovan said. “Every day this year, he’s out there working on his finishing, and you’re seeing it pay off. When he gets in front of the goal now, it’s comfortable for him. He doesn’t panic. … He’s been great.”
Since the 1950s, professional European soccer clubs have been running youth development academies — where kids train from their elementary school years into their teens with the goal of playing with the pros. Youth academies are operated in the Netherlands, by Bundesliga teams in Germany and notably by FC Barcelona, whose celebrated La Masia youth club produced Lionel Messi.
Major League Soccer started its youth development program in 2007, the same year the Galaxy opened its academy. The Galaxy currently has about 140 players on its U-12 through U-18 academy teams.
“Only time’s going to tell, but certainly it’s a good sign to have an academy player have success with the first team,” Galaxy General Manager and Coach Bruce Arena said of Zardes. “That’s the reason we’re spending all of that time and resources in our academy program.”
Players in European soccer academies progress through a system in which they receive coaching consistent with the club’s philosophy at each age level.
The Galaxy draws from these models, but Vagenas says it cannot copy them.
One challenge for soccer academies in the U.S. is that traditionally American kids play for their high school and then college teams to launch pro sports careers. But players with the Galaxy Academy do not play on their high school teams.
Another hurdle in the U.S. is the wealth of sports available to talented young athletes. Overseas, soccer is the dominant sport.
“We have a chance to really grab the attention of these young athletes when they’re deciding what sport to ultimately play,” Vagenas said. “The magic of … the Galaxy youth academy is we can change a kid’s future. They can come into our academy and graduate a full professional with a career.”
This year the Galaxy also created a reserve team, Galaxy II, which plays in the USL Pro league, to serve as a bridge between the academy level and the parent club.
Recently, another former youth academy player was promoted to the Galaxy, 17-year-old forward Bradford Jamieson IV. He played for the Galaxy Academy U-18 team, committed to the University of California, then signed with the Galaxy in February. After playing this season for the Galaxy II team, Jamieson made his MLS debut last month, notching an assist in his first game with the Galaxy.
Zardes said that while he was growing up he attended Galaxy games with his dad and often dreamed of playing on the field with Donovan.
“After I was done with academy practice, I used to train at home because there’s always good guys coming in for your spot and Galaxy was the team that everyone wanted to be on,” Zardes recalled.
He’s on that team now, showing young players the path from the academy to the starting lineup.
“Gyasi is a wonderful example of a player and a person that we want our kids to look up to,” Galaxy President Chris Klein said.