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The Crew is ‘lucky’ to have Gyasi Zardes, an underrated, under-appreciated forward

The Black & Gold striker doesn’t get the acclaim his performances deserve, unless you talk to those in the know.

Sam Fahmi - Massive Report

The Columbus Crew knew the team got a talented player and a good deal when trading for Gyasi Zardes in January of 2018. The Black & Gold sent forward Ola Kamara, coming off an 18-goal season, to the LA Galaxy for Zardes and $400,000 in Targeted Allocation Money.

What Columbus got in return was a player who had scored 10-plus goals just once in his first five seasons in Major League Soccer, while playing multiple positions for the Galaxy. But the Crew looked beyond Zardes’ 14 total goals from 2015-17 and saw a striker that then-head coach Gregg Berhalter and his staff believed fit the profile the team required.

“When we (made the trade), we came up with two or three guys in MLS that we were interested in and Gyasi was certainly one of them,” Berhalter told Massive Report last week. “What made Gyasi, to me, the most attractive was he was an under-appreciated asset. So for us, it was, okay, now this guy we can get at a great price and we really believe in him.”

Since coming to Columbus, Zardes has produced in a major way. Playing exclusively as a forward for the Crew, Zardes has 44 regular season goals in the last three years, which is the fifth-most of any MLS player over that time, behind only Josef Martinez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi.

Over the last three years, Zardes has worked his way into a tie with Stern John for fourth all-time in goals for the Black & Gold. He is the first player to lead Columbus in scoring in three consecutive years. In five career MLS Cup playoff games for the Crew, Zardes has three goals, including two in the Black & Gold’s run to the Eastern Conference Final this postseason.

On the international level, Zardes made his debut for the U.S. Men’s National Team in 2015, but scored six of his 12 goals for his country in 2019, playing as a forward under Berhalter.

Yet despite these numbers, Zardes is not included in the conversation for best forwards in MLS. When it comes to discussing USMNT attackers, fans and pundits alike often look for other options as opposed to the Columbus striker.

“With Gyasi, he’s a top player,” Crew head coach Caleb Porter said. “I think anybody that knows the game and knows him and knows what he’s capable of, the educated opinion on that should say that he’s a top striker.

“That’s not my opinion, that’s a fact. He’s shown that. I think a lot of people really believe in him like I do. I know Gregg does. The people that matter the most rate him very highly. If you ask players, they’ll rate him. If you ask coaches, they’ll rate him. I think when you ask people that know the game, they’re going to rate him.”

Perhaps the reason Zardes doesn’t receive the same acclaim as other top MLS forwards is because of how he goes about his business. Unlike some of those other names mentioned, Zardes isn’t a flashy player. For most of his career, he hasn’t created many opportunities for himself; instead, he consistently puts himself in good positions to score, a valuable trait in a forward. And fans certainly aren’t going to hear him sing his own praises after games, as Zardes is a team-first player.

Since joining the Crew, Zardes is among the lead leaders in American Soccer Analysis’ goals added from receiving. Zardes receives passes in dangerous positions, generating around 0.3 goals in value per game in 2018 and 2020. Zardes’ movement and ability to get the ball in dangerous positions is on par with MLS’s elite, Bradley Wright-Phillips at his peak, Josef Martinez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

This, interestingly, is what makes Zardes desirable as a player to those that matter. When he is a part of a team that can put find him in those good positions, as he is with the Crew under Porter and with the national team under Berhalter, the numbers back Zardes as a goal scorer. But he also won’t complain if he doesn’t see much of the ball in a game or doesn’t find the back of the net.

“I’ve always been a striker that’s just been patient,” Zardes said. “I’m not going to praise myself, but I just have to make sure I don’t get frustrated if I’m not getting opportunities or if I’m not touching the ball a lot because I know there’s going to be an opportunity in the game and I just have to capitalize on it.”

Zardes’ tactical understanding and versatility are also underrated. He showed this with his statistical contributions in the playoffs this year, popping up at the back post for a game-winning header against the New York Red Bulls and then pulling wide to draw out Nashville SC’s center back before setting up Pedro Santos for the finish in extra time.

In addition, Zardes does work that often goes unnoticed, things that other forwards may not always be willing to do. Under Both Berhalter and Porter, Zardes has been the start of the defensive pressure, helping to trigger the team’s press. His ability to read the game and know when to attack a defender with the ball or stay off and let the opponent have space doesn’t get discussed enough.

Zardes is a relentless worker and a very good player to have in any locker room, two things that help to create team success but don’t show up on the stat sheet.

“I think sometimes what happens is people on the outside, they see the forward as a different type of profile,” Berhalter explained. “They see the forward as a guy that needs to create on his own, that needs to make things happen by himself. And that’s not Gyasi, but that’s okay because he has a ton of strengths.

“When you have a team that’s geared toward giving the striker goal-scoring opportunities, he’s going to score more often than not. And then he’s going to give you everything else you’d ever want from a striker. In terms of the work rate, the defensive work, the closing down, keeping compactness, all of those things he does really well.”

Those who tend to criticize Zardes often point to missed touches or chances not finished instead of looking at what the forward does well. The numbers alone show that Zardes scores on par with the best in MLS and in his time with the Crew, his improvement as a pure forward is evident to those that watch him regularly.

What Zardes does when he doesn’t have the ball, his runs, his pressing, his willingness to defend, are all things that coaches and teammates value in a forward. These are necessary traits not just at the MLS level but internationally as well, which is why Zardes remains in the picture for the USMNT.

When Berhalter and his staff acquired Zardes three seasons ago, they knew what type of player they brought to Columbus even if others didn’t see it and he had his best goal scoring season in 2018. Under Porter, Zardes has continued to develop in his striker role, adding to his game and proving right those who believe in him with what he brings every day.

“We’re real happy to have him and I’ve said it before, he’s a great system fit,” Porter said of Zardes. “Obviously (he) scores goals but more than that, he defends and is a team guy, really humble and very professional. So it’s hard to find a guy like him. When you look at his production bang for buck, when you look at his production in his defending and his attitude and his professionalism and the fact that he’s a team guy, we’re pretty lucky to have a player like him.”