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Settled at striker, Zardes is ready to be a protagonist for the Crew

After years having to shape his game to his teammates’ in LA, the striker became a centerpiece in Columbus.

Ralph Schudel l Massive Report

If any Major League Soccer follower were to describe Gyasi Zardes in one word before he joined Columbus Crew SC, in January of 2018, they would probably go with ‘versatile.’ One season with the Black & Gold and 20 goals later, the 27-year-old striker has arguably redefined his label, as ‘lethal,’ ‘decisive’ and ‘difference-maker’ are certainly better fits for his current form in the league.

The shift in his career happened when Zardes came to Columbus and became the team’s go-to player and its undisputed starter at the striker position. He was the club’s top goal scorer and MVP in 2018, won the league's Comeback Player of the Year award and, week after week, erased all questions surrounding the deal that brought him to the Black & Gold and sent former fan-favorite Ola Kamara to the LA Galaxy.

For him, the immediate success was a result of settling into one single position and having teammates who make his life easier both on and off the field.

“I personally feel that striker is my strongest position and I love playing it every single week,” he told Massive Report. “Every single day I get to progress in practice with new runs, certain types of turns and positioning that I need to be in that will help me in the game. Playing striker every single game has really helped me succeed. And my teammates are always trying to find me on crosses and passes in the final third and that really helps a striker to become more consistent.”

During his six seasons with the Galaxy, in which he won the 2014 MLS Cup, Zardes played in virtually every offensive spot for the team. He was even deployed at right back a few times by former Crew head coach Sigi Schmid.

Zardes sacrificed his own beliefs for the good of the team and he acknowledges that the numerous experiments he’s been through might have impacted his performances at times, even if he built a respectable career with the Galaxy, recording 34 goals and 17 assists in 131 regular season appearances (116 starts).

However, for him, it was also a beneficial experience.

“I look at it in both ways,” he explained. “Sometimes it hurts your game because you’re not having consistent reps at that particular position, but sometimes it can help your game because you can be versatile as far as playing in multiple positions and understanding the runs and understanding the tasks at hand in those positions.”

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Preseason Grind.

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But Zardes can now sleep in peace because the Crew’s head coach Caleb Porter seems to have no intention of moving him away from his preferred striker role, especially after the player showed his firepower in very limited time in preseason, scoring three goals in two matches at the Carolina Challenge Cup and leading the Black & Gold to their third-straight title in the tournament last weekend in Charleston, South Carolina.

“He’s our No. 9, our striker and that’s a crucial position,” Porter explained. “In this league, teams that have No. 9s who score goals are the teams that win games. You need your individuals to make plays in the box and Gyasi had a breakout year last year with 19 (regular season) goals. That showed the type of quality he has at the No. 9 position after playing as more of a winger in LA. He’s really coming to his own.”

As he succeeds in Columbus, Zardes quickly becomes the focal point of the team’s offense, a role he enthusiastically embraces. During his time in LA, the striker had to mold his game and defer to the likes of Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, Giovani dos Santos and Romain Alessandrini.

With the Crew, he knows his teammates will work to get him the ball in good positions and he wants to be ready to take advantage of it every single time it happens.

“The team will always look for you to score goals when the opportunity arises and I really feel like I’m doing a great job,” he admitted. “But my teammates welcomed me with open arms and every time I step on the field I have so much faith playing alongside this great group of guys. I always look forward to every challenge we have and in every single game I just want to give my all. I want to be better every time I step on the field. That has always been my mentality and I think that has helped me.”

In 2018, Zardes had his best season to date and after some vacation and taking part in the U.S. Men’s National Team January Camp with former Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter, he is ready for his second year with the Black & Gold.

While he’s excited, the striker also knows he needs to work twice as hard to keep the same production level when the 2019 season starts on Saturday against the New York Red Bulls at MAPFRE Stadium.

“I wanted to carry the momentum over and I just want to keep progressing as a player,” he added. “I’m really excited that I had a successful year last year, but in the way I view it, it’s a new season. I’m a humble guy. I see myself as a normal player and that helps me to stay grounded and humbled and focused on what my job is.”