Juergen Klinsmann’s goals for U.S. Soccer’s winter training camp were to expand the national team’s player pool and to win at least one of the first two exhibitions of the year.
He accomplished both goals Sunday, with Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes putting an indelible stamp on a 2-0 win over Panama that not only ended the monthlong camp but also ended a five-game winless streak for the Americans, their longest since 2007.
“Without a doubt he is a guy who has to be in this group going forward,” midfielder Michael Bradley said of Zardes, who was making his first start with the national team. “He sees things. He has a feel for the game.”
Late in the first half at StubHub Center in Carson, Zardes saw Clint Dempsey streaking up the center of the field and found him with a perfect pass that split two defenders. With his first touch Dempsey dribbled around Panama keeper Jaime Penedo and with this second he chipped the ball into the net, giving Zardes the first assist of his international career.
Bradley had scored the first goal, curling a corner kick over Penedo’s outstretched arm and into the side netting just inside the far post. But as spectacular as that goal was, afterward even Bradley couldn’t stop talking about Zardes.
“We all have to be careful not to put too much pressure on him because he’s still a young kid and he’s still relatively inexperienced,” said Bradley, who was superb in his own right, playing his finest game in nearly a year. “But he has the right mentality. He continued to get better as the camp wore on. He has shown that he deserves to be here.”
Actually Zardes, 23, may have shown that last year, when he scored 16 goals in 26 regular-season starts with the Galaxy before adding one more in the Major League Soccer championship game. Klinsmann said he saw Zardes play frequently in MLS and talked often with the team’s coaches, so he wasn’t exactly surprised with what he saw in camp — or in Sunday’s game, where Zardes’ dribbling and passing opened up yards of space and forced Panama into numerous fouls.
“He showed certain tools. Not only his speed, but also [the ability] to hold the ball,” Klinsmann said. “The assist to Clint was just perfect, perfect timing. That shows that he has something special.”
How that will play on a bigger stage remains unanswered because Panama, playing its first game in nearly three months, used an inexperienced team, one with three teenagers and two other players under 21. But Zardes tried not to over-think all that, jokingly comparing Sunday’s performance to a video game while admitting he still has much room for improvement.
“I’ve just been trying to learn as much as I can from the coaches,” he said. “But not only the coaches, the players here. All the feedback they’ve been giving me, I’ve just been trying to take it in and just try to develop and grow as a player.”