If you took away penalties, the Major League Soccer golden boot race would look like this:
- Bradley Wright Phillips, 16
- Robbie Keane, 12
- Gyasi Zardes, 10 (Tied)
You read that right: only two players have scored more non-penalty goals in MLS this year than 22-year-old Gyasi Zardes of the LA Galaxy. Like Tommy Thompson and Wil Trapp, Zardes is a homegrown player, a product of MLS’s academy system. Given that, it’s surprising we don’t talk more about Zardes. Let’s change that.
Zardes’ 2014 season, his second with the Galaxy, got off to a very slow start. He started the first game of the season, at Real Salt Lake, but was subbed off after 69 minutes. Zardes suffered an injury in the CONCACAF Champions League, and struggled to get back onto the field after that. Eight matches into the MLS season, Zardes had played just 157 minutes, and the Galaxy were 2-3-3. Zardes returned to the starting XI for LA’s May 21st game against FC Dallas, and he delivered.
Watching it live, it looked like a classic header. As replay and the GIF attest, the ball actually comes off of Zardes’ shoulder. It’s not exactly textbook. But strikers occasionally need that kind of luck to get them started. Since then, Zardes has started 14 out of 15 for the Galaxy, and scored nine more goals.
At 6’2″, you would expect Zardes to get some headers. But if you count the shouldered goal against Dallas, just three of Zardes’ goals were headed in. Above, Landon Donovan feeds him against Chivas. Below, Robbie Rogers delivers the assist.
Earlier in that Portland game, Zardes had a header rocket off of the crossbar. He knows how to get up for a ball in the air. But the majority of his goals look like this:
By now, you might be noticing a trend: Zardes is getting his goals thanks to great delivery from his teammates. You’re not wrong.
All of the goals shown so far, and nine of his 10 on the season have come from just one touch by Zardes: the shot. Likewise, nine of his 10 goals have come from inside the box.
So to an extent, Zardes is very fortunate to play on a team that has both Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan. Keane is tied for the MLS lead with 11 assists on the season; Donovan is third with 10. Not every 22-year-old benefits from that sort of service. But you don’t score 10 goals by being lucky. There is a skill in putting yourself in the right places at the right times. There’s a skill in losing defenders, and popping up where they aren’t. There is a skill in being able to finish accurately without needing an extra touch to set yourself up. Not everyone is able to do this:
That accuracy is where Zardes has improved the most since last year. His 10 goals this season have come from just 47 shots, for a conversion rate of 21.3%. To put that into context, of the 64 MLS players with at least 30 shots, only four have been more efficient than Zardes. Now compare that to last year, where Zardes took 78 shots and scored just four times. Only 23 of those shots were even on target; this year he has 20 shots on target. Without poring over footage from 2013, that suggests to me that he was taking far more ill-advised shots, from longer distances. It’s a sign of maturity that where he once might have bombed the ball over the crossbar, he is now opting to maintain possession instead.
All of this is a very long way of saying that Gyasi Zardes is very good at what he does. Now, there are some limits to what he does. In the years to come, the Galaxy or some future club may require him to expand his game, so that he can create more chances both for himself and teammates. But right now he fits LA’s attack like a glove, and we should appreciate him as one of the best young talents in MLS.