Photo courtesy of CSUB Athletics
By KAYLA KNAPP
Anyone who has seen Gyasi Zardes play knows what the 20-year-old talented striker is capable of doing on the field.
The CSU-Bakersfield junior has everything a coach could ask for in a forward. He is fast, makes smart runs off the ball, has precise footwork and is a deadly finisher.
“I’ve coached at Cal State [Bakersfield] for 25 years, and whether it be coaching or looking at all the other teams over the years, I would like to say he’s one of the best players that I’ve seen, just all-around soccer players in all that time,” CSUB head coach Simon Tobin said. “He’s a brilliant forward. He’s silky smooth on the ball, he can beat people very easy. He’s an all-around forward.”
Zardes enjoyed the definition of a breakout season in 2011, scoring 18 goals in 20 games. By the end of that season, the attention from scouts began to surface, as did a contract offer from the Los Angeles Galaxy. Zardes decided he wasn’t quite ready yet to turn pro, and he chose to focus on his education and improving as a player instead.
“I wanted to come back to college and really prove myself,” Zardes said. “My dad always puts an emphasis on school-school-school, because in soccer an injury can occur at any time, and then what would I have to fall back on? So I wanted to get more out of my degree.”
Tobin was part of the discussion with Zardes about whether he should turn pro, and said that while education was absolutely a factor, there was something else that made him want to come back to finish his degree.
"I think Gyasi came into college not really knowing about it, and probably hadn’t thought too much about a degree, and then all of a sudden he kind of blossomed as a student, he does well in school,” Tobin said. “He kind of likes the college environment, and that’s an even shorter window than the professional window.”
As most star-quality forwards do, Zardes is full of confidence. Already offered a Homegrown Player contract from the Los Angeles Galaxy, Zardes also has attracted interest in Europe. While his focus is on this upcoming season of college soccer with CSUB, he has Premier League-sized dreams for his future. By the time he hits his mid-20s, the rising star is certain he’ll be playing soccer at the top level.
“I’ll be playing for the U.S. national team, but club-wise, I seriously think I’ll be playing in the EPL,” Zardes replied when asked where he’ll be in five years. “Similar to Clint Dempsey, and I’m going to keep playing and working hard.”
That kind of confidence is crucial for any player at his level, but especially for a striker. Forwards that are successful need to possess a level of fearlessness, whether it’s taking on a defender or ripping a shot from distance.
“Sometimes as a forward you have to be very confident and maybe a little bit cocky in your own abilities that you’re always going to score goals,” Tobin said. “Especially that position where it’s based on getting the ball in the back of the net, confidence comes into it a lot.”
And along with that confidence comes an eagerness to constantly learn and improve.
“He’s very receptive to criticism, he’s just a great kid to deal with,” Tobin said. “Although he’s a very, very good player, he’s got no hang-ups about how great he is — he’s willing to learn every day.”
Prior to his college years, Zardes developed through the club system in Southern California, playing for a number of top teams in the Coast Soccer League. He spent time with South Bay Force, Irvine Strikers, Cherif Zein and Celtic Hoops during his youth. For young players, playing for that many clubs might have hindered development because of a lack of consistency. But that’s not the case for Zardes; it has only strengthened his game.
“It helped me grow a lot,” Zardes said. “I adapted with all the players that I played with around me, and playing with multiple players and different coaching styles helped put all that knowledge in my head to get where I am now. It made me a versatile player.”
At 17, the SoCal native moved on to playing with the LA Galaxy academy. After graduating from Leuzinger High School, he opted to sit out his first college season at CSUB as a redshirt. That year, he played with the Galaxy U-20s, who made it to the league finals where they eventually fell to Crew Juniors. Zardes scored the only goal for the Galaxy in that game.
Not only is Zardes succeeding in the classroom as he finishes his degree in criminal justice, he is thriving on campus with his peers and professors.
“He’s the first kid I’ve had in 25 years that isn’t just friends with people on the soccer team, I think he’s friends with everyone on campus, it’s amazing,” Tobin said.
Tobin said that last year when the decision was made to stay in school, Zardes and his father sat down, and talked about how he would be able to finish in December, and then make the move to become a professional soccer player. It’s no surprise that his father’s opinion of education played a part in his decision to continue at CSUB. Zardes’ family is a huge part of his life and soccer career.
“Throughout this whole process, my family has been my No. 1 biggest supporters,” Zardes said. “They’re always there for me and if I have a game, they always try to make it out, always there just supporting me.”
With his family behind him every step of the way, Zardes had grown into one of the most promising U.S. college players by the end of 2011, but that didn’t mean he was completely ready to move on from his college career just yet.
“He had the ability to move on last December, but I don’t think it’s just ability, I think there’s some other things as well,” Tobin said. “It’s maturing and being ready as a person, and being ready to move, if it’s in LA or if it’s across the country or if it’s out of the country, there’s other factors than just being a great player and I think he will be truly ready as an individual this December.”
Zardes was recently named to the 2012 MAC Hermann Trophy Watch List, and while it’s certainly an honor to be on that list, he admits it’s something that isn’t at the forefront of his mind. For what is likely his final season at CSUB, the striker has big aspirations for what he will accomplish on the field.
“I have a No. 1 goal to have a better season than last year, but one thing I don’t do is think about the past. I moved forward,” Zardes said. “I know I scored 18 goals last season, but I know I can score more than 18 goals this season.”