Zardes delivers another perplexing USMNT performance

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John Dorton
The U.S. national team striker scored a goal in Tuesday's win against Guyana, but his play failed to convince those who still don't rate him

Ever since he's been a part of the U.S. national team set up, Gyasi Zardes has been an enigma.

The long-striding, hard-working striker can sometimes make a positive impact on games, but then he can also have games where he appears lost, seemingly dancing to a song only he can hear. He has had his poor touches turned into YouTube compilations, and you can assemble a good collection of what could be best described as accidental goals and assists from past moments of on-field good luck.

When Zardes is on his game, his speed, athleticism and tenacity can put him in spots to generate goals, both for himself and for his teammates, and even his oft-criticized first touch can be effective. When he's not on his game, his touches can be brutal, his runs poorly timed, leaving him looking lost like a tourist in a foreign country.

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Tuesday's Gold Cup opener against Guyana was one of those games where Zardes didn't appear to be in sync with his teammates, though that could be blamed in part to a lack of familiarity among the group, and the jitters of a tournament opener. Zardes put in his trademark hustle, but far too often made the wrong run, or failed to react properly to an opportunity.

The notable exception, of course, was on the goal he wound up scoring, a goal he seemed to know little about. Paul Arriola's driven cross was deflected by a Guyanese defender and ricocheted off Zardes' head before going into the net. The play happened so quickly Zardes spent the post-goal team celebration wincing in pain after catching the wayward shot to the face.

"It was a great reaction from him, seriously, a really good reaction," USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter said after the match with a wry smile on his face. "You see strikers that can just smell things like that. It’s funny, the two goals that he’s scored so far for us since I’ve been around have been very interesting goals. I talked to him after in the locker room and he said he’ll take it, and I don’t blame him. I’d take that also."

That Zardes was the team's starting striker may have come as a bit of a surprise, but Berhalter revealed that it had more to do with top striker Jozy Altidore still working his way back to full fitness than about him losing the starting job to Zardes.

"Jozy’s a player that is getting up to full speed. I think he’s done a great job this camp," Berhalter said. "When I talked to Jozy before the Gold Cup and talked to him about some of the expectations for him, he’s exceeded every expectation that we had of him, really working hard, great team guy, and we’re excited to start integrating him."

The opportunistic goal Zardes scored didn't take away from the feeling that he was off his game on the night, though Berhalter chose to focus on the effort he put in.

"One thing you’re always going to get with Gyasi is the work rate," Berhalter said. "I thought he worked really hard today."

For fans still upset with Berhalter's decision to leave young forward Josh Sargent off the Gold Cup team, Zardes' performance felt more like evidence of why Berhalter's decision was a mistake. It does feel early to already be writing off Zardes' Gold Cup worth after one match, but he has been a magnet for criticism for years.

That criticism has often come from fans and media, but for teammates and coaches, the consensus is Zardes is a model teammate, the type of player who never stops running and working, along with being a positive presence in the locker room.

"I think people don’t understand the value of having a guy that is a total team player," Berhalter told Goal before the Gold Cup when asked about the criticism Zardes faces. "It’s funny that you mention this because in France they were absolutely killing (Olivier) Giroud and all he did was win the World Cup. He played every game, and did his role and his team won the World Cup.

"It’s not always you need to have this prolific goal scorer to be the great team, it’s not always that," he added. "That is sometimes the answer, but I think when you have a guy that’s a total team player, understands his role, and can score by the way, you can be successful."

For now, Zardes remains the USMNT's second striker, behind lead striker Jozy Altidore, but given the latter's injury history, there is still a chance the former will have a major part to play at this Gold Cup. If that's the case then the United States will need him to provide more than just hard work if the Americans are going to lift the trophy this summer.

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