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How Gyasi Zardes fits in Columbus Crew SC’s attack

How do you explain Zardes’ roller coaster career so far?

Crew SC Communications

New Columbus Crew SC attacking player Gyasi Zardes comes to his new side with something to prove. Having taken his turn as “The Next Thing” in American Soccer, a disastrous 2017 campaign that saw the 26 year old score only two goals and spend time as a right back has dramatically tarnished Zardes’ reputation.

In his brief preseason with Crew SC, Zardes has been deployed as the lone striker in manager Gregg Berhalter’s 4-2-3-1 formation. From Berhalter’s comments, it’s clear that the Columbus manager sees Zardes as a target striker.

Physically, the Black & Gold’s new attacker fits this casting. At 6-foot-2 and 187 pounds (one inch shorter than Kei Kamara and two inches taller than Ola Kamara), Zardes is an imposing physical presence. Throughout his career, he proved himself capable of holding up play and scoring in the air, both skills which can pay dividends as a striker in Crew SC’s system.

However, it’s been nearly four years since Zardes’ breakout season with the LA Galaxy in 2014, where he scored 16 goals and helped lead the team to an MLS Cup. Since that season, the new Columbus striker has only 15 goals. Now, it is up to Zardes to prove that he has the skills to be a top striker in MLS and that his 2014 scoring outburst was not a blip in an otherwise average career.

What happened between 2014 and 2017 to drop Zardes’ goal scoring totals off a cliff? The easy answer is that he stopped playing with Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane and couldn’t cut it when he had to take on more responsibility for scoring and creating goals. That may be the case. The more complicated answer is... it’s complicated.

In his breakout 2014 season, Zardes played 28 of the 37 games (including the playoffs) as a striker in a 4-4-2 formation. In the other nine contests, he played as a right or left midfielder in that same formation. For the early part of that season, Zardes played on the left while Donovan played up top with Keane. Once Zardes and Donovan switched roles, the Galaxy found their winning form and claimed another MLS Cup. From his nine games in the midfield in 2014, Zardes scored only one goal. As a striker, he found the back of the net 16 times including a goal in the MLS Cup final.

During that breakout season, Zardes had the benefit of playing with Keane and Donovan, who while on the back end of their careers, were still both in near peak form. Keane supplied 21 total goals and 17 assists while Donovan contributed 13 goals and 21 assists.

In 2015, Zardes played in 30 games (including the playoffs) but only 14 at striker. The remaining 16 outings were in the midfield, usually on the right or left with two appearances as an attacking midfielder. In a more withdrawn role than he’d prefers, Zardes scored three goals, and as a striker he scored six times.

What happened in 2015 that pushed Zardes to the midfield after displaying the skill to be a successful MLS striker? The big reason for this change is the retirement of Donovan at the end of 2014. In an attempt to make up for those lost goals and assists, Zardes was played in multiple positions. The secondary reason is the Galaxy’s signing of Giovani dos Santos. Once dos Santos signed for the Galaxy, Zardes only played as a striker one more time in 2015.

During the 2016 season, the Copa America Centenario and a late-season injury clipped Zardes’ Galaxy match total to only 18 — 10 as a striker and eight as a midfielder. Zardes scored four goals while up top (now playing primarily as a lone striker) and two as a midfielder.

The 2017 season was a disastrous campaign for both Zardes and LA. Still trying to recover from a 2016 injury, he struggled to regain fitness but was still able to play in 24 contests. In those games, first under Curt Onalfo and then under former Black & Gold boss Sigi Schmid, Zardes was deployed as a striker 15 times, as a winger six times and as a right back three times. Both of Zardes’ 2017 goals came in matches where he played as the lone forward.

Including the playoffs, Zardes has scored 36 goals in his MLS career. Twenty-eight of those came while playing as a forward. Obviously, someone deployed as a striker is going to score more goals than someone playing in the midfield, but much of the narrative around Zardes’ struggles has been around his lack of goals.

The drop off could be attributed to Zardes not having a clearly defined role with the Galaxy, being used by three managers as a utility player in order to put bigger name players in their preferred position even if it was to Zardes’ detriment.

With Crew SC, Zardes can count on having clear and consistent direction and also on playing as a striker. Through his few preseason games with Columbus, Zardes has fit in well with the system and already scored multiple goals. Clearly, both Zardes and Berhalter think that the attacker’s best position is at striker, so now it’s up to Zardes to prove them both right.