The Austin Chronicle

The Verde Report: Gyasi Zardes Is Focused on Goals, Not Your Opinion

Austin’s newest striker is coming off match-winning goals in back-to-back games

By Eric Goodman, May 26, 2023, Sports

Pop quiz! What's the one thing every person in America has? If you said, "a social security number," sorry, not quite. If you said, "a favorite Avenger," still wrong, but getting warmer. If you said, "an opinion on Gyasi Zardes," congratulations, you win!

Seriously. Go ask your grandmother. Odds are she'll cook up a 10-minute diatribe about lousy first touches, ostentatious yellow hair, or lack of European league experience. And she won't be alone. The very thought of Gyasi Zardes inexplicably brings out a nasty side in folks that few American soccer players have ever triggered.

"It's been his whole career for some unknown reason," Austin FC coach Josh Wolff said of his newest striker. "The abuse and the criticism that the media gives him, that fans give him ... I'm always saying you can't score enough goals, but it's really the case for him. He's gonna get scrutinized [no matter what]."

Such has been Zardes' reality since he burst onto the scene a decade ago as a flashy, exciting homegrown player with LA Galaxy. In his second professional season at just 22 years old, the Hawthorne, Calif., native broke out with 19 goals across all competitions (including a terrific score in the 2014 MLS Cup Final). He instantly became a fixture of the U.S. men's national team and looked for a time like the heir apparent to an aging Clint Dempsey as the program's star striker.

It never quite materialized and over time Zardes became a primary target of one of the most toxic and insecure fan bases in American sports: that of the U.S. men's national team. Generally speaking, USMNT supporters are a Very Online and hypercritical crowd, with a Europhilic envy and a disdain for their own nation's top domestic league, MLS. In their eyes, the fact that Zardes never seized an opportunity to ply his trade across the pond is both an indictment of the player and a crime punishable by incessant abuse. It never seemed to matter that, per reports, the Galaxy turned down multimillion-dollar offers for Zardes from Europe, hoping to keep their homegrown star stateside.

Of course, Zardes is not above fair criticism. He's far from a perfect player, lacking elite size, elite speed, and elite technical ability. Yet despite that, he's scored goals everywhere he's been, thanks to a famously tireless work ethic and a God-given goalscorer's instinct you simply cannot teach.

On paper, bringing Zardes to ATX as a free agent this past offseason made all the sense in the world. Here was a striker just three goals shy of becoming the 13th player ever to reach 100 career MLS goals, at the relatively manageable age of 31, joining a club that, despite not having a consistent No. 9 all throughout last season, still ranked among the top three MLS clubs in goals scored. It was a formula tailor-made to produce goals, and Zardes knew it.

"For any striker within this league, your eyes are open wide when you hear Austin, because you know there's going to be numerous opportunities," he said in February.

Except there wasn't. At least, not through the first third of the season, when Zardes not only failed to score but also struggled to find any consistent involvement in the Verde attack. Patience among the fan base began to wear thin, and understandably so.

But Wolff's patience never wavered. And last week, that patience paid off as Zardes finally found the back of the net not once but twice, scoring match-winning goals in back-to-back games against the Seattle Sounders on the road and Toronto FC at home in front of the Verde Wall.

The latter could be described as the quintessential Gyasi Zardes goal. A chaotic, broken play in which the ball ricocheted off a defender 40 feet in the air, then fell onto Nick Lima's head, then careened off the crossbar to Zardes, who just happened to be perfectly positioned waiting to nod it into the top corner, that uncanny goalscorer's instinct on display for the first time in a Verde shirt.

"Something in my head when Nicky went up for the ball and I saw the keeper didn't come out, I was like, 'This ball is gonna come back to me. It's gonna come back to me.' And sure enough, it hit off the crossbar and came straight back to me," Zardes said.

The ensuing cool, tidy finish over a leaping defender seemed draped in confidence – the kind of confidence that strikers going on 2½ months without a goal aren't supposed to possess. Which points to the other unteachable quality Zardes carries in droves: unshakable mental toughness.

"Even when I wasn't scoring, I was still confident, man. You have to be," Zardes said. "I've been doing this about 11 years professionally and I understand sometimes you go through phases when things are not going your way. And then I've been on the end of stuff where, man, I've had some crazy goals out there. You can see, it'll come off my face and I didn't even see the ball and it goes in the back of the net. So you just have those spells where everything's going your way and sometimes everything's not. But I keep the same mentality."

It's a mindset touted by many, but truly embodied by few. Zardes is one of the few. A genuine, immensely likable personality, he has authored – by any reasonable measure – a hugely successful career in his sport. And yet, wherever he's gone, a disproportionate amount of criticism and hate has followed. He'll tell you he doesn't know a damn thing about it.

"It's crazy because, man, a lot of people say, 'Oh, fans are negative!' But I'm like, I don't really see it or hear it. Because there's a lot of supporters that, you know, support us. And that's all I think about," said Zardes, who wisely has comments turned off on his Twitter profile. "So if you hear any fans say anything negative, just tell them good luck conveying that message to me."

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