When Gyasi Zardes was named last month to the U.S. team for the Gold Cup, it raised a few eyebrows — but little concern — around the Galaxy.
Zardes, a forward, was mired in the longest goalless drought of his career. He had managed only one assist and five shots on goal in 12 games. Even Dave Romney had done better and he’s a defender.
But a different Gyasi Zardes has emerged during three weeks with the national team. In his only start, in a group-stage win over Martinique, Zardes was dangerous throughout, setting up two early scoring chances before picking up the assist on Jordan Morris’ game-clinching goal. It has him in line for another start Wednesday when the U.S. meets El Salvador in a Gold Cup quarterfinal in Philadelphia.
“Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen him get back to his old form,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. “He’s more confident now. He’s going after defenders one on one, which is an important part of his game. He’s always had the great ability to get up and down the field. Has good pace.
“We’re starting to see all those things get pieced together.”
Arena signed Zardes to his first professional contract, then managed him for four seasons with the Galaxy. Zardes said the reunion with his old coach helped him break out of his funk.
“Being back with this group, they know me pretty well,” Zardes said of the national team coaches who, until last December, all worked for the Galaxy. “They all were telling me, figure out what I’m doing wrong and to fix it. They’ve really helped me.”
Turns out it was a simple repair.
“Just be more aggressive, that’s it,” Zardes said of the advice he received. “They said it doesn’t matter how many times you lose the ball. Go forward and be aggressive.”
There may be more to it than that. Zardes’ poor start with the Galaxy was blamed largely on injuries, a fractured bone in his foot that ended his 2016 season two months early and arthroscopic knee surgery that delayed the start of his 2017 season by a month. The resulting seven-month layoff was the longest of his career.
When he finally got back on the field in March, he had to adjust to a new coaching staff and new teammates while trying to play himself into shape. It proved too many hurdles to clear at once, dealing a blow to Zardes’ confidence.
“With Gyasi there are several things,” said Dave Sarachan, Arena’s top assistant with both the Galaxy and the national team. “There is a comfort level that he needs. He needed confidence. Confidence is a huge role in his ups and downs.
“Not that he doesn’t have confidence in his own environment. But … when he came in he had kind of a fresh slate. He knew what to expect from the staff, he knew what to expect from the quality. And his confidence spiked early. His level of concentration along with that has really been quite good. All of those factors together have pushed the bar for him.”
Now Zardes promises to build on that progress.
“That Martinique game, I was real confident,” he said Monday after an hour-long training session on a hot and humid morning at the University of Pennsylvania.
“To be honest, that’s just a glimpse of what’s to come. I’m still working hard to get back to where I was. That aggressiveness, that explosiveness. I’m really loving where I’m at.”
So are the Galaxy, who are eager to get him back.
“He didn’t go in with the best form,” said Galaxy President Chris Klein, whose team has not defeated an MLS opponent in Zardes’ absence. “But he’s continued to get better, which is the best thing for us. He’s going to make it back and be the Gyasi that we all know. And that’s very important for our team.
“Just to see him continuing to get stronger, to be very good in the final third, all of that is encouraging for us. Because we really need him.”
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11