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Zardes ready to deliver on promise as Columbus Crew's new No. 9

9:25 PM IST 16/02/18
Gyasi Zardes Columbus Crew
After years of being shifted around the field, the U.S. national team forward is looking forward to a chance to be the man in the No. 9 role

Gyasi Zardes was "messed up in the head."

Once considered a potential starter at striker for the U.S. national team, the 26-year-old California native had fallen on difficult times in his career.

Zardes scored just two goals in the 2017 MLS season — a career low. It was a far cry from 2014, when Zardes found the net 16 times in the regular season and once more in the playoffs to help the LA Galaxy to the MLS Cup.

But that was when he was more of a No. 9. Before the days he was shifted wide, right or left — something that happened quite a bit for him as a member of the U.S. national team and then continued with the Galaxy.

How crazy did it get for Zardes? While he played 14 games at striker last season, he logged five on the right wing, one on the left and, amazingly, three at right back. And that type of shifting around made it hard to keep his mind straight from game to game.

"With Galaxy, I played numerous positions on a week to week basis," Zardes told Goal. "I could get messed up in the head. Am I winger this game? Am I a striker?"

The effects showed in his goal totals. Zardes has not matched his 2014 output in the three seasons since. That’s in total — he’s scored only 14 regular season goals since 2014.

But the days of shuffling around the field look to be over, as Zardes was traded to the Columbus Crew last month in a deal that saw their leading scorer, Ola Kamara, head the other way. And there’s no doubt where Zardes will be lining up for Columbus.

"With this team I’m a center forward, I’m a striker," Zardes said.

And as a striker he’ll be expected to deliver the goods. Kamara scored 18 goals in 2017 and 16 the year before. Without any proven depth behind him — rookie Edward Opoku and veteran journeyman Adam Jahn are the only other true strikers on the roster — the Crew will need Zardes produce like it’s 2014 if they hope to match or surpass their Eastern Conference final finish from last season.

"With Gyasi, it was someone we were very comfortable with," Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter told Goal. "We thought we got good value for Ola and we felt comfortable making this change. We’re getting a little bit younger. We’re getting a U.S. national team player."

It’s more than just words — the Crew see the potential in Zardes’ athleticism. Berhalter hailed Zardes’ ability to play out wide if the team wants to change it up, though he made it clear he views the trade as a “like for like” switch with Kamara, leaving little doubt where the ex-Galaxy man is going to see most of his time.

While Zardes' athleticism has been praised as his greatest asset, Berhalter also is impressed with aspects of his technical ability.

"He’s very dynamic," Berhalter said. "We’ve noticed so far working with him that he’s very good striking the ball, very good at getting his shot off. He’s very difficult to deal with one versus one."

With those talents, the focus has shifted to teaching Zardes what he needs to do in the Crew’s system — when he needs to go forward, when he needs to track back. None of this is surprising for a player who has had to change his mindset and decision-making on a game-by-game basis.

"I’ve been extremely impressed by how clear the coaching staff has made my role on the team," Zardes said. "It’s crystal clear what they expect of me offensively and defensively."

It’s very much a new experience for Zardes — not just because he again has a set position and team seemingly ready to build around him, but also because it’s a world outside of California.

Born in Bakersfield, Zardes had never left the state to play his soccer. He went to college at CSU Bakersfield. He played his entire pro career with the Galaxy.

Columbus isn’t Southern California, and it’s a change Zardes is looking forward to.

"To have an opportunity to live in a different state with different cultures and play for a different team, you know I was excited about that," he said.

Crew captain Wil Trapp added: "Gyasi is guy that is craving a new environment. It’s a situation where I think we can tap back into the form that he had two seasons ago where he was scoring goals on the regular and was a handful for defenders.

"I think our system fits him extremely well and you’re already seeing that in preseason where he has four goals in three games. So he brings quality. He brings athleticism and just a hunger that we’re definitely going to tap into and enjoy this year."

As Trapp noted, the early returns have been promising. In a pair of games in Hawaii, Zardes netted three times.

Of course, friendlies are one thing and the regular season is another. That is where Zardes will have to prove he can fill Kamara’s shoes and be the leader in the attack the Crew need him to be.

With Kamara joined out the door by Justin Meram, the club's second leading scorer last season, Zardes will be essential to the Crew’s chances of capturing the MLS Cup that eluded them in the 2015 final and their deep playoff run in 2017.

Part of Berhalter’s confidence in Zardes is his belief in a system set up to create chances for the striker. While that seems to be an idea every team would embrace, there’s evidence it’s more than just words — Berhalter’s system feeds his No. 9s.

Kei Kamara had never scored more than 11 goals in an MLS season prior to arriving in Columbus. He scored 22 for the Crew in his first season there in 2015. In the 52 games he’s played since being traded away from Columbus, Kamara has scored 19 times.

Ola Kamara’s career high in goals was 14 in 29 games for Molde in 2015. He scored 16 in 25 games for the Crew in 2016, then 18 in 31 games in 2017.

Could Zardes be the next player Berhalter turns into a dangerous threat?

"With Gyasi, it’s just fine tuning him," Berhalter said. "We believe in his quality. We think he’s a guy who can score goals for us and now it’s just about working on the details."

Those details will be the difference between whether the trade turns into a steal or disappointment. But Zardes thinks everything is in place for him to deliver on the promise he’s shown.

"So far, [the system] fits me perfectly," he said. "I have played four games and have four goals. As a striker, that’s pretty good."