Jozy Altidore takes the headlines, but Gyasi Zardes steals the show for U.S.
WASHINGTON -- Jozy Altidore stole the headlines by scoring both U.S. goals in the 2-1 win against Peru on Friday night -- but Gyasi Zardes stole the show.
The LA Galaxy youngster, who hadn't had a cap before the year began, made his 11th start of 2015 for the national team at RFK Stadium. Although he didn't get on the score sheet, he was probably the United States' most effective player, with almost every attack going through him on the left wing.
It was the latest evidence of the progress the 23-year-old has made in a relatively short time and of how important he's become to coach Jurgen Klinsmann's team.
"I think Gyasi has been one of our best players for the national team," Altidore said after the match. "His effort is fantastic. He's always an outlet. He's always dangerous. He gets the ball, and he always has a defender on his back foot.
"I think he doesn't get the credit he deserves. I think he's been spectacular. He's always improving; he's positive; he's always looking to learn. There's nothing bad you can say about the kid."
Zardes is just two years younger than Altidore, but his youthful exuberance, selfless work ethic and apparent lack of ego have endeared him to U.S. veterans from the moment he stepped into his first national team camp back in January.
Captain Michael Bradley, who missed Friday's match to square off with fellow U.S. A-lister Clint Dempsey in Saturday's Seattle vs. Toronto MLS tilt, isn't one to heap praise on every promising newcomer who comes along. But Bradley couldn't stop raving about Zardes, going as far as to say even then that the Hawthorne, California, native had to be on the field for Klinsmann's team. Such comments don't raise eyebrows any more.
"He's an endless worker," Klinsmann said. "He has speed; he has his dribbling; he can take people on. He gives us a new element that we didn't have in the World Cup last year.
"We suddenly have another option there. It was something that we missed in the World Cup -- speed. Now we have one flank, him, and on the other, DeAndre [Yedlin], and it makes it not easy for opponents.
"We all know Gyasi can also play up front, and it's something maybe he likes a little more, but he serves that role and says, 'No matter where you put me, I'm going to give everything I have.' We have to recover him quickly for Brazil."
The Americans meet the five-time world champions on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN), and Klinsmann made it clear that, after that high-profile friendly in suburban Boston, Zardes will be counted on heavily in the team's most important match of the year next month.
"I feel comfortable with him towards Mexico, absolutely," Klinsmann said of the looming Confederations Cup playoff. "He's growing at such a fast speed."
The spot out wide isn't unfamiliar to Zardes -- he's often played there with the Galaxy -- and his willingness to embrace a role that fills a need for the width-challenged Yanks is at least part of the reason he's been able to establish himself as a key player so quickly. It was no accident his teammates went to him repeatedly on the left against Peru.
"During training this week, Jurgen really touched on the wingers getting the ball and creating opportunities and crossing the ball in," Zardes said. "They gave me space, so I tried to utilize it."
Over time, he's become increasingly comfortable attacking from a wide position and said, "I'm starting to see the game differently."
Former U.S. boss Bruce Arena has helped that process along, according to Klinsmann.
"Bruce really grew him and sometimes brought him out and gave him different variations in his game," the coach said. "I think Gyasi's game has become a lot more consistent."
And by all accounts, he still has plenty of room to grow.
"He's a highly intelligent kid, and you know he will give everything he has," Klinsmann said. "I always tell him to not worry about mistakes. He obviously tries to help out, and I think, with the year he's having with the Galaxy, you can see that in his game."
• Zardes was credited with an assist for Altidore's 68th-minute winner, but the goal might not have happened had U.S. keeper Brad Guzan not made two brilliant point-blank saves -- first from Carlos Zambrano, then from Renato Tapia -- a minute earlier.
"I was just happy to keep the first one out, and I was able to keep the second one out -- it was kind of stuck under my leg," he said. "You're just doing whatever you can to keep the ball out of the net."
The U.S. struggled for a large stretch of the first half, but Guzan credited the improved second-half performance to the Americans' more aggressive approach.
"We never let them get comfortable in the second half," he said. "In the first half, after the first 15 minutes I thought we dropped off and gave them too much respect."
Altidore said: "The second half was much better. Defensively, we pushed up the field. We weren't worried that much about the space in behind. We tried to make the pitch smaller. It wasn't perfect by any means, but it does a lot for your morale when you win a game."
• Matt Besler made his first U.S. appearance since February when he replaced fellow left center-back John Brooks with a half-hour left to play.
"I was just happy to get back out on the field with my teammates and contribute and help the team win," said Besler, who partnered Ventura Alvarado for the first time. "Maybe [there was] a little extra effort concentrating and reading off of him and his movements. But at the end of the day, I felt comfortable out on the field."
• Tim Ream wouldn't have started the match had first-choice left-back DaMarcus Beasley been healthy, but he took advantage of the opportunity with a polished performance.
"I think Tim Ream played very solid this game, won many one-on-one situations, played really simple at the back," Klinsmann said.
So does Ream see an opportunity to eventually inherit the role from the 33-year-old Beasley?
"You always feel like you have a chance," he said. "God love Beas, but he's not getting any younger. He can still play at this level, there's no doubt about it, but the way things are going, you look at Fabian [Johnson] as more of a threat going forward, and I think the coaches want to see him be in the games in the wing-mid spot.
"If that's where they see me contributing and getting minutes, then I'm going to make the decision and their job difficult who to chose."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.