Not only was the forward not in the starting 11, despite not being injured or away on international duty, but he was not even on the bench for the Black & Gold.
This was foreign to Crew fans. Since Zardes arrived in the offseason prior to 2018, the striker started every game in which he played. In fact, Zardes has played 90 minutes in all but five of his 55 games over the last two years, with his fewest minutes, 65, coming in the 3-1 loss to D.C. United earlier this season.
The moral of the story, when he was available for Columbus, Zardes has started and played.
When he was not included in the game day roster against NYCFC, speculation ran through fans’ minds. Was Zardes left out of the lineup due to poor form after missing perceived simple game-winning goals in the last two matches, both which ended in frustrating draws?
The answer, according to head coach Caleb Porter, is actually much simpler.
“That decision was nothing to do with earning anything,” he said on Thursday. “It was just me saying -- we’d always planned to start Romario and instead of having Gyasi travel and maybe get minutes off the bench, we wanted to give Jordan the chance to play.
“If you know you’re not going to start a guy, sometimes the best thing you can do is not travel him. In this case, because we had Jordan, we wanted to give him the opportunity for those minutes when Romario had to come out of the game. So we had kind of planned that.”
This strategy is nothing new for Porter. During his time as the head coach of the Portland Timbers, he often rotated key players out of the lineup, especially during a congested schedule. On more than one occasion, Porter left the Timbers’ No. 10 and Designated Player Diego Valeri home from road trips to have him fresh for upcoming matches.
In Zardes’ place in the starting 11 was Romario Williams, who came over in a summer trade from Atlanta United and made five appearance off the bench, including scoring on his debut, since joining the Black & Gold. Despite being in Major League Soccer since 2015 — with one year in the USL — Wednesday was Williams’ first MLS start.
“I thought the first half just in general, the pressure from Romario and (Eduardo) Sosa needed to be better,” Porter said of the forward’s performance in his first extended minutes. “And then I just thought once we won the ball, their ability to help us connect and move up the field and the decision-making of when to keep and when to counter needed to be better. Obviously Pedro (Santos), his energy helped and then Romario played better in the second half, in the first 15, 20 minutes.”
Not putting Zardes on the bench was also a tactical decision by Porter. Jordan Hamilton also joined the Crew in a trade during the summer from Toronto FC and, due to his work visa taking longer than expected, was yet to see the field for Columbus. Williams, who trained with the team since July 1, has been the forward off the bench for the Black & Gold while Hamilton got settled.
According to Porter, if Hamilton wasn’t going to get minutes as a substitute when Zardes didn’t start, it was unclear when he was going to play for the Crew.
In his first action for his new team, Hamilton played well in his 30 minutes, despite not getting the equalizing goal.
“Jordan was lively when he went in,” Porter said. “He was testing the line, offside a few times, a couple times where he was close. But people forget, these are young players still. They’re very young players and they need to get time and minutes.”
Despite his recent misses in terms of finishing, Zardes is still the guy at forward for the Crew. While it was unusual to not see him in the starting lineup when he was available, Porter thought it was for the best, with one eye on Sunday’s rivalry game against FC Cincinnati.
“I just felt too that Gyasi’s played (nearly) every minute of every game since he’s been here,” Porter said. “And obviously when he’s been gone with the national team, he’s played a lot of games. I’ve done this quite a bit with senior players, with guys that I feel like just need a couple days to kind of reset and recharge. But nothing to do with anything other than me always taking the time to give senior guys a couple of days.”