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In a changing MLS, the Crew need Zardes to score up to his contract standards or find someone who can

The Black & Gold have to expect more from the team’s highest-paid player.

MLS: FC Cincinnati at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew SC made a decision in mid-May. It was one that had numerous people around Major League Soccer scratching their heads.

The Crew announced a multi-year contract extension for Gyasi Zardes, one that made the forward a Designated Player. Just over a year prior, the LA Galaxy, the club that signed the striker as a Homegrown player in 2012, sent Zardes plus $400,000 to Columbus in exchange for Ola Kamara.

This decision put a target on Zardes’ back. A player who only twice in his career, including his debut season with the Black & Gold, scored more than six goals in a year now was considered, fairly or unfairly, among the elite in MLS. His contract, a base salary of $1,421,667 according to the MLS players’ union. made him one of the top-paid strikers in the league, albeit on the lower end of the spectrum, and with it came expectations.

A year after scoring a career-high 19 goals in Gregg Berhalter’s striker-friendly system, Zardes was expected to produce at the same level. As new Columbus head coach Caleb Porter said early and often in the 2019 season, “if Zardes doesn’t score 19 goals, the Crew don’t make the playoffs.”

Through 27 games this year, 22 of which featured Zardes, Gyasi has nine goals and the Black & Gold sit seven points and four spots behind the postseason line with seven games to play.

While Pedro Santos’ goal scoring increased this year — tied with Zardes for the team lead with nine — the production of the forward has not been enough to help see Columbus back to the playoffs.

This was brought dramatically into the spotlight over the last two matches.

The Crew had two home games against MLS basement dwellers FC Cincinnati and Toronto FC, another side on the outside looking in at the playoff picture. In retrospect, two wins in those contests would have seen the Black & Gold move within three points, or one win, from the postseason. Columbus got two points total after back-to-back disappointing 2-2 draws.

While the blame should be spread across the team — how did the Crew go down 2-0 to Cincinnati in the opening 30 minutes? Why couldn’t the Black & Gold simply see out the 2-1 lead in stoppage time against Toronto? — the focus and frustration went straight to Columbus’ $1 million man.

In both games, Zardes had clear-cut chances to seal the win. With the score tied at two heading into stoppage time against FC Cincy, Zardes put what looked like a tap-in from four yards out off the crossbar. In the TFC game, the forward failed to finish a shot from inside the six-yard box and headed the ball down and over the crossbar from close range in the second half.

“You need, just like Jozy finding the goal, they pull the rabbit out of the hat,” Porter said Saturday after Zardes’ U.S. National Team teammate scored the late equalizer. “He pulled a goal out of nothing and when you look at the teams in this League that are up the table, they get their strikers doing that, every game... Gyasi is the guy that needs to be on it for us and he knows that.”

According to the expected goals analytic, Zardes had a 15 percent chance to score zero non-penalty kick goals in those two games. He scored one and it was from the penalty spot. The miss against Cincinnati had an expected goal rate of .51, according to American Soccer Analysis, meaning over half the time, the player in that same position should score.

On the season, Zardes is just above the median on expected goals, which was fine for the Crew when he made $630,000 but now he’s the Black & Gold’s highest-paid player.

In a league that is starting to spend money, especially on attacking players, and features the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Carlos Vela and Wayne Rooney, the Crew needs consistent, high-level production from its striker. While it may be unfair to compare Zardes to such international superstars, the Portland Timbers, Colorado Rapids and Sporting Kansas City are all getting that consistent production from their forwards who have similar reputations and are paid a similar amount, if not less, than Zardes.

The Crew has seen the best of Zardes’ play and it helped a team that, other than the forward, struggled to score reach the postseason a year ago. But that level of production has not continued this season and the new contract makes the recent misses that much more glaring. While it should be noted that Zardes’ relentless work rate, his team-first mentality and his presence in the locker room are all underrated parts of his game that went into his contract extension, his job first and foremost is to score goals.

While it is the Black & Gold’s job to get the best out of Zardes, the team also has deeper pockets than ever before thanks to the new ownership of the Haslam family. In order to keep up with the rest of MLS, the club may have to go find a striker who can score consistently in big moments, something it was hoping to avoid when giving Gyasi a new deal, like other names around the League and buy Zardes back down below the DP threshold.

The Crew isn’t ready to give up yet and Zardes has the remaining seven games of 2019 to prove he can still be the striker the team hoped for when giving him a contract that came with higher expectations.

“I have faith in him,” Porter said. “Every striker goes through rough patches and slumps, and they have games where it doesn’t come and he’s got to have a bad memory because he’s missed some really good chances in the last two games and certainly that’s cost us points. He has proven he can do it, he’s got to work the kinks out and he’s got to figure it out.”