Gyasi Zardes is trying to cope with expectations after breakout 2014
As the 2015 MLS regular season unfolds, there's no letup to the challenges facing LA Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes. But perhaps the biggest one of all is down to simple familiarity.
Zardes is coming off a stellar 16-goal season in 2014, and he scored the club's opener in the 2-1 MLS Cup final triumph over the New England Revolution. As the 23-year-old and his teammates prepare for Sunday's tilt against the New York Red Bulls, he knows full well that he is now a known quantity.
Zardes can see it in the way teams defend him, hear it in the communications between opposition center backs, and feel it in the ferocity of their tackles. In those moments when Zardes has played with his back to goal, midfielders are more willing to double up on him and further limit his options.
"I definitely feel a different approach now when I play against teams," he told ESPN FC via telephone. "They don't see just a random person in the lineup. Teams try to do their research on me now. I pay attention to what the defenders say to each other as far as knowing which runs I like to make. I'm thinking to myself, 'They have to be watching film on me to know I make that run.'"
So how does he combat such an approach?
"Just switching it up, it's like chess," he said. "If you know your opponents moves you can bait them into acting like you're going there still and choose a different route."
There have been other obstacles this season to be sure. With Landon Donovan retired and Marcelo Sarvas traded, the Galaxy midfield is in transition. Even existing on-field relationships have to be rebuilt to a degree. The fact that Robbie Keane has been injured for the last two games has exacerbated the issue.
Combined with the fact that Zardes has been moved between midfield and forward, you have a situation where it has been difficult for him to recapture some of the chemistry on the field, even as more responsibility has been placed on his shoulders. So far, he has scored just a solitary goal this season, and his shots (six), shots on target (two), and passing percentage (74.8) are all lower than last year.
"There's always the issue of getting consistent reps in a position, and Zardes been a little bit of a victim of being used as a wide guy here and there," said Galaxy associate head coach Dave Sarachan.
"Overall, in front of goal, there hasn't been quite been the chemistry established yet, not only with a partner like Robbie Keane, but within the whole group.
"I just think given those factors, he hasn't quite gotten out of the starting gate with the expectations that maybe everyone thought. But we all know it's a marathon. It will get there."
There are external pressures as well, like living up to the expectations that come with trying to repeat last season's heroics, or perhaps being one of the faces of the franchise now that Donovan is gone. Zardes insisted that he's unaffected by the outside noise pointing out that Keane and Omar Gonzalez carry more star power than he does.
"I feel no pressure," he said. "I feel like people who dwell on and try to compare themselves to last year, you can complicate things and you can be getting into your own head. What I like to do is just forget about it. It's a clean slate and a new year for me."
What gives Zardes confidence is that he continues to learn, which is befitting of a man who is just seven classes shy of his criminal justice degree from Cal State-Dominguez Hills. That progression has also taken place with the U.S. national team.
As is so often the case with young players, the start of his international career has seen some bright moments (vs. Chile and Panama) as well as some struggles (vs. Denmark and Switzerland) when the pace of the game almost seemed too much for him.
"From a physical standpoint he's certainly been fine," said Sarachan. "He's got the speed. Now it's just cleaning up his first touch, making sure he's holding balls in spots he needs to and turning when he needs to and taking on guys when he needs to."
That emphasis seemed evident in last week's friendly against Mexico. On a field that bore a closer resemblance to a cow pasture, Zardes was paired with Jordan Morris, and tasked with playing with his back to goal more, he proved adept at holding the ball up and bringing his teammates into the play. It might not have been flashy, but it was what the team needed, and speaks to a better tactical awareness on his part.
"Sometimes forwards and strikers are just on an island of their own," he said. "With the national team I've really understood how to be a striker and play as a unit. Your work will revolve around not only your partner up top, but your midfielders. As long as I can stay connected with my midfielders, my partner up top, and my defenders, it's just going to make me a better striker."
The next step is applying those lessons to his game at club level. Zardes insists the goals will come, and being paired up top with Alan Gordon should help in that it will allow him to face up to goal more.
"Last year I started scoring in May, so I have a head start this year," he said with a laugh. "I feel like I'm catching form. I feel like with each and every game I'm getting more comfortable. I feel like I'm getting stronger. I feel like I'm a real threat this year."
For opponents, that's a scenario that is all too familiar.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.