Gyasi Zardes' rise to MLS stardom
Let's get this out of the way at the top: Although he has amassed more goals than any other American in MLS this season, LA Galaxy striker Gyasi Zardes is a long shot to receive a national team invite for next month's matches against Ecuador and Honduras.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann made it clear last week that he intends to bring his strongest squad for the back-to-back friendlies, scheduled for Oct. 10 in Connecticut and Oct. 14 in Florida. And Zardes, as prolific as he's been this season, has never been called into an American camp at any level, let alone been capped. Simply put, next month probably arrives a little too soon.
That's not to say the 23-year-old Los Angeles native isn't on Klinsmann's radar, or that Zardes won't receive every chance to prove he deserves to be a U.S. regular between now and Russia 2018. His production this season has earned him a look, which will almost surely come in January or, depending on how deep the Galaxy go in the MLS playoffs, maybe even in a pair of year-end exhibitions in Europe in November.
The opportunity will come. And when it does, it will be because of more than just the goals.
For those who haven't watched Zardes closely in 2014, the 15 strikes in 26 games stands out the most. But people who saw him burst onto the scene as an athletic, skillful but raw first-year pro in 2013, when Zardes scored four times in 27 starts, have been more impressed by the evolution of his overall game, particularly his play away from the ball.
"He had flashes last year like everyone saw," Galaxy teammate and U.S. legend Landon Donovan, who helped amplify the recent Zardes-to-the-national-team calls, told ESPNFC.com last week. "[This year] he's been consistent -- that's the biggest thing. Everything has gotten better. He's confident, he's moving well, he holds the ball well, he's become a lot more intelligent in the way he moves and creates space for others."
This improvement goes beyond natural progression. Zardes is a year older and more experienced, sure, and he's also benefited from being in the best learning environment in American soccer.
But he is also reaping the rewards of a concerted effort to study and master his craft.
Specifically, he's spent much of the last year picking the highly developed soccer brain of MVP candidate Robbie Keane, perhaps the most intelligent striker MLS has ever seen.
"The way he thinks is incredible," Zardes said of the longtime Irish national team captain. "He can break down any defender in the league. Robbie's always giving me advice on runs I can make that will just kill a back line."
"He's always telling me to get into a position where the defender has to turn his head and look away from where the ball is," Zardes said. "Once they lose sight it, you have him beat. I'm always watching a defender's head. He can't defend if he doesn't know where you are or where the ball is coming from."
Field-testing these new techniques against U.S. World Cup center-back Omar Gonzalez in practice every day has also helped to up Zardes game -- and his confidence -- this season.
And former Yanks coach Bruce Arena continues to challenge Zardes even while giving him more responsibility.
"Last year in training, I used to always miss the net high. Bruce would always say, kind of joking but serious, that good strikers miss wide of the goal, not over it. Just little comments like that are so helpful. This year, I'm shooting more on frame."
It's showed. Zardes is third in the Golden Boot race, behind New York's Bradley Wright-Phillips (21 goals) and Kansas City's Dom Dwyer (19), despite playing 200 minutes less than either player. And Zardes' stats are even more impressive when you consider that he's spent a significant amount of time on the wing as Arena juggled Donovan, Keane and recently acquired Alan Gordon up top.
The Galaxy tied Montreal 2-2 last week, and Zardes, after scoring LA's opener, was again moved out wide. "Unfortunately for Gyasi," Arena said, "I had to sacrifice him a little bit."
Not that you'll hear Zardes complaining. Teammates describe an affable, hardworking player who's mature beyond his years -- he's married, with an infant son -- the kind Klinsmann likes to call "a giver." That's another reason a U.S. call-up for Zardes is inevitable, even if doesn't arrive quite as soon as many expect.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.