Trades in professional sports aren’t easy, as moving a player often involves a shakeup of at least one team. This becomes especially difficult when a player has performed well over the years and is a favorite in the locker room and among fans.
That was the case with Gyasi Zardes. The Columbus Crew announced last Friday that the forward had been traded to the Colorado Rapids. Coming back the other way was, at a minimum, $300,000 in General Allocation Money, a number that could rise to $1.4 million if certain incentives are reached.
The decision to move Zardes wasn’t an easy one. The striker had been with the Black & Gold since he was traded from the LA Galaxy prior to the 2018 season. He was Columbus’ leading goal scorer in three of the four full years he played for the club and third in the all-time record books. Perhaps more importantly, Zardes and his family were important parts of the community.
But sometimes the good of the club has to come above any single player and this was the case with the Zardes, who turned 30 in September.
“Good clubs move players that are right at that time, and it’s not easy,” head coach Caleb Porter said of the trade this week. “I just started seeing him kind of miss chances that maybe he would normally make. I do think he still has his legs and he runs hard and works hard. That’s going to help him in Colorado.
“I’d say he’s not fallen off the cliff like some players do. But slowly he’s going to start to go down every year because of his age.”
In eight games in all competition this year, Zardes had just two goals, including one penalty kick in the U.S. Open Cup. That follows a nine-goal season a year ago, his fewest since 2017, where Zardes played 21 games. This would be less of an issue if other players were scoring goals, but the Crew has struggled offensively this season after a hot start with no goals scored in the last four Major League Soccer games, going 0-3-1 in the process.
What has become apparent in the opening seven games of the season is that the Black & Gold need players to score goals. Playmaker Lucas Zelarayan has four finishes this year, but is battling a knee injury, and winger Derrick Etienne Jr. has two goals, one-fifth of his career total. Forward Miguel Berry, who has started seven MLS games this year for the team up top, has just one and that came in the opening game of the season.
Given the fact that Zardes’ contract is up at the end of the year, it made sense from a Crew perspective to move him now as opposed to waiting until later in the season. Making this trade also brings in resources and opens a Designated Player spot for Columbus to make an addition.
Because of that, when Colorado came calling, the Crew picked up the phone.
“Obviously, is it perfect timing? It could have been two months prior, it could have been two months later, but you’ve got to strike when the iron’s hot,” Porter explained. “Obviously we got that offer and, at the end of the day, for us to improve in our attack, we needed to open up cap space. And this allowed us to open up Designated Player space, which is the best case scenario. For a guy that isn’t often a starter for us right now, it made sense for us to make that move.”
The trade also made sense for Zardes as well. While he and his family became entrenched in the Columbus community in their four-plus years in the city, Zardes had to think about his career. After being a regular starter for the vast majority of his 10-year MLS career, Zardes lost his spot to Berry this season but still feels he has something to prove in this league.
Additionally, Zardes still has hopes of making the United States Men’s National Team roster for the World Cup Finals in November. In order to achieve that dream, Zardes needs to be playing games regularly. He confirmed to Jacob Myers of The Columbus Dispatch that the trade was an “exciting opportunity.”
“Obviously with speaking with Gyasi, it made sense for him as well because he needs to be playing to have a chance to make that World Cup roster,” Porter said. “It was mutual really. Many times it’s not a mutual thing, but this was a conversation that was had ahead of time. Gyasi signed off on this and agreed to this. And it was important that we had that discussion with him because of the type of player that he is, what he did for our club and how much respect that we have for him and his family.”
As for moving forward, the Crew will look to add a quality attacking piece to the roster as soon as possible.
“We need a 15- to 20-goal scorer minimum,” Porter stated. “There’s not a good team in the league that doesn’t get that consistently, and we need that.”
The last time the Black & Gold had a player score 15 or more goals was Zardes’ first year in 2018, before Porter arrived in Columbus. While the head coach still believes in Berry’s potential and he remains in the team’s plans, and will likely have to find a way to score some goals until the summer transfer window opens in July, the 24 year old has not yet demonstrated the ability to score with the likes of the best in MLS and the Black & Gold’s offense has suffered this year because of that.
After moving on from Zardes when the opportunity presented itself, a player who can be among the best goal scorers in MLS is what the Crew now will look to bring in.
“This was the time and we have players we’ve scouted, we have options and it’s just just a matter of pulling the trigger,” Porter said. “Obviously it’s tight for this next window that closes in a week. The summer window, you can expect that we’re going to have a very good attacking piece joining a club.”