Gyasi Zardes was one of the stars of the show when the United States Men’s National Team defeated Trinidad and Tobago on Saturday. The forward, who earned his 47th cap for the U.S., scored his second and third goal of the Gold Cup, and the ninth and 10th of his international career, to help the Americans to a 6-0 win.
“We’re proud of him,” U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter said after the game. “We’re proud of his effort. We know that he has good ability, he’s a tremendous worker and it’s nice to have him in the squad.”
After putting in his usual relentless work as the start of the Americans’ defense over the first 45 minutes, consistently closing down Trinidad’s defenders and making it difficult for them to build out of the back, the 27 year old was rewarded with the two-goal second half.
The first was a typical Zardes finish where he laid the ball off to Michael Bradley in the midfield, made a good run to get on the end of a crossed ball inside the six-yard box and finished neatly with his right foot. The second was a rarer finish from the forward, receiving a pass just inside the 18-yard box, taking a perfect setup touch and curling a shot into the far corner.
“On the first goal, I looked for the open space,” he explained of the play. “Sure enough, I just crashed the goal and just be ready for the ball to come at you. Sure enough, I tapped it in. But the second goal, I tried to move my feet and adjust my body so I could take a first good touch and then glance at the goal and just shoot far post.”
It was plays like these, games like these in fact, last year that got Zardes back on the national team radar. After falling out of favor as a forward with the LA Galaxy, Zardes saw fewer and fewer international call-ups. But after a trade to Columbus Crew SC before the 2018 season, Zardes flourished as the team’s lone striker.
In 33 games last year, Zardes bagged 19 goals. While he wasn’t always on the scoresheet for the Black & Gold, and finished 12 goals behind Golden Boot winner Josef Martinez, Zardes was counted on to be Columbus’ goal scorer and he delivered. The forward had four games such as this one for the national team where he popped up at the right time and bagged at least two goals.
“It’s obviously good to see for him,” first-year Crew head coach Caleb Porter said of Zardes’ play against Trinidad on Sunday, “but then it reminds you he’s missing and you won’t have him the next game.”
The problem is, the Zardes playing for the Crew this year is not the Zardes playing for the national team and it hurts the team’s offense which has scored just 16 goals, second-worst in MLS.
Through 15 games in 2019, Zardes has just six goals. Considering Columbus has now played half of its regular season games this year and Zardes will miss more time with the national team, the forward is on pace for approximately half of the goals he managed last season.
Before scoring in his final two games for the Black & Gold before the Gold Cup break, Zardes had one finish in nine contests, all but two of which ended in losses for the Crew. Last season, Zardes didn’t go longer than three games played without finding the back of the net. He already went six consecutive contests without a goal in 2019.
The difference, it seems, is Berhalter, who was the Crew coach the last five years before taking the national team job in December and is known for being able to get the best of out of forwards. His system is geared toward putting the striker in the right positions and getting him the ball to finish.
Berhalter’s system didn’t just work with Zardes. Kei Kamara and Ola Kamara each had career seasons playing for the Black & Gold under Berhalter, and even Ethan Finlay, playing more of a wide forward, had back-to-back double-digit goal seasons in Columbus.
In watching Zardes with the Crew this year and then seeing him with the national team, back in a Berhalter system, it’s clear something is different. In the opening game of the Gold Cup against Guyana last week, Zardes managed to be in the right place at the right time to score a goal, having the ball deflect off his head without knowing much about it and into the net.
“Some of the foundations are very similar to how we played at Columbus Crew last year but there’s different elements now,” Zardes said after the two-goal game. “It’s like on steroids now. So it’s pretty cool to try to learn these new methods and new movements. You see me getting the ball deeper and connecting and I really enjoy playing here.”
From a national team perspective, American fans are happy to see Zardes bagging goals for the U.S. But for Crew supporters, it’s understandably frustrating that he has been unable to have the same production of late for the Black & Gold.
It’s not as if forwards haven’t scored for Porter in the past. In back-to-back seasons playing for Porter while at the Portland Timbers, Fanendo Adi had 16-goal seasons and Diego Valeri, more of a second forward, regularly scored in double figures.
Under the head coach, fullbacks are key to creating chances for the striker and both of Columbus’ starters at either position were hurt before Zardes left for international duty. That is certainly part of the problem on the club level.
But, as Porter has noted many times this year, if the Crew are going to score goals, it’s likely going to come through Zardes and the Black & Gold need to figure out what works for him with the Red, White and Blue, bottle that and replicate it for when he returns or it could be an even longer second half of the season.
“When he gets back, it won’t hurt his confidence,” Porter said. “That will be good for us. I’m just hoping it’s not too little, too late.”