The fear when Ola Kamara was traded to the LA Galaxy for Gyasi Zardes was that Columbus Crew SC was losing its top goal scorer and getting in return a player whose best scoring years may be behind him.
Those fears were put to rest in the Black & Gold’s first two games of the 2018 Major League Soccer season.
After scoring in his debut last week to help his new side to a 2-0 win over Toronto FC, Zardes followed up with a brace on Saturday in a 3-2 victory over the Montreal Impact in his first game since the trade in front of the Crew SC faithful at MAPRE Stadium.
In just two matches already with Columbus, Zardes has surpassed his goal total (2) from all of last season with the Galaxy.
“It feels great,” the forward said after the win. “I’m trying to progress each and every day and like I told these guys earlier, I’m going to keep working hard for them and they already work hard for myself.”
On Saturday, the Black & Gold needed Zardes’ finishing.
After conceding an 85th minute goal to Montreal’s Raheem Edwards to level the match, it appeared the early positivity, with Crew SC up 2-0 in the first half, was gone. But in stoppage time, rookie Luis Argudo was tripped in the penalty box, causing referee Chris Penso to award Columbus with its second penalty kick of the day.
After having taken the first spot kick attempt, Federico Higuain allowed Zardes to take the second effort, something unheard of in these parts just two years ago.
“I always miss on that goal. Always,” Higuain said with a smile. “I miss I think four or five PKs. So why not try something new?”
Then more seriously:
“I believe if our forwards score goals, that means that we’re playing good... Of course also because I trust in Gyasi and he did a great job.”
Zardes stepped up confidently to the penalty spot with the game on the line and blasted a shot into the top corner to secure a second consecutive three points for the Black & Gold.
“Put the ball in the back of the net. You have to,” Zardes said of his thinking on the attempt. “You have to be confident. It’s a big moment and I’m thankful that Higuain let me take that, but also that Luis drew the PK. It was a big moment for him.”
Despite the concerns coming in, Zardes’ finishing rate should be no surprise to Crew SC fans who watched the build up to the regular season.
The forward showed from the moment he stepped on the field for the Black & Gold that he not only still possess his old scoring form — he had 16 goals in 32 games for LA in 2014 — with six goals in five preseason contests, but he fits into Gregg Berhalter’s attacking system.
“What we tried to do is try to integrate him as quickly as possibly to our playing style and get guys used to him and get his movements dialed in and then you know his qualities will take over,” the head coach said. “So the plan was to acclimate him as soon as possible to our group.”
So far, that plan appears to be a success.
But Zardes isn’t only defying expectations from when the trade was announced, but he’s also setting records.
With his 15th minute finish, Zardes became the first player in Crew SC history to score in his first two games with the club.
“I had no clue,” he said when this was pointed out to him. “Wow. It’s amazing. But I try to keep the thoughts and attention off myself and remember that this is a team.”
Looking back over Zardes’ last three seasons, there were reasons for Crew SC fans to be concerned when a guy — Kamara — with 34 goals in the last two years was traded for a player with 34 in his career.
But there were also extenuating circumstance — injuries and being played out of position — that explain Zardes’ decline in production.
There is also the fact that Berhalter and his staff saw something in Zardes they believed would make him a fit for Crew SC, and, so far, they have been proven right by a guy who, it appears, just needed a fresh start.
“I’m having a lot of fun,” Zardes said. “It’s a great group of players. I just love playing for these guys, playing for this coaching staff. There’s no other place I’d rather be right now.”