By MARK EDWARD HORNISH
CARSON, Calif. – When Gyasi Zardes scored the opening goal in the MLS Cup in December, at home at the Stub Hub Center in front of friends and family, it would have been easy to imagine that the Hawthorne native had reached the pinnacle of his career.
In fact, he was just getting started.
Zardes will dress in red, white, and blue in front of friends, family, and an adoring home crowd again on Sunday when the U.S. Men’s National Team takes on Panama at the Stub Hub Center, where Zardes plays his club soccer for reigning MLS champions LA Galaxy. After earning his first cap with the U.S. last week in Chile, Zardes is excited to show head coach Jurgen Klinsman that he belongs on the international stage.
“This feels amazing. A dream come true. Everything I dreamed about as a kid, it’s here” said Zardes before practice on Saturday afternoon. “This is my home town, my home stadium. Just to be able to play in front of friends at a live venue, it’s just going to be an amazing experience.”
While Zardes, 23, is a newcomer to the U.S. team, few young American players have generated as much excitement and anticipation. In 2014 Zardes blew away the goal scoring record for Homegrown Players, scoring 16 goals in MLS, nineteen across all competitions. His goal-scoring exploits caught the attention of Jurgen Klinsmann, who handed Zardes his first national team call-up last month.
“He confirmed what we already saw throughout the season, that he’s a very, very talented forward,” Klinsmann said of Zardes. “He’s very teachable. He’s listening, he’s eager to improve. He wants to do the extra shift every day. He’s hungry, so it’s really fun to work with Gyasi and I think he deserves to be a part of this group.”
Zardes knows that despite the accolades preceding him, he still has a long way to go.
“Obviously the coaches called me into this camp because they see something they like. I’m just here to try to make a statement for myself, and to work extremely hard, and hopefully, they’ll like what they see.”
Zardes won’t be fazed by playing alongside the likes of Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, or Jozy Altidore. He has had more than a little exposure to elite talent in his time with the Galaxy.
“To be honest, I’ve played alongside some of the game’s best players, like Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, Omar Gonzalez,” admitted Zardes. “These guys are phenomenal players. Being in that environment every day, just helps me grow as a player.”
The time spent with the MLS Champions and their elite talent has helped Zardes prepare mentally as well as physically.
“Landon told me ‘It’s a long camp. Take care of your body. So I was ready” Zardes said. “Everybody gets nerves. But once you catch the rhythm of a game, and if you catch it fast, there’s no point being nervous. They players around you, when they’re great like this team, they will bring you into the game.”
Whether Zardes earns his second cap or not, he will have huge support from both Galaxy and USMNT fans, as well as his family. When asked how many tickets he had to provide for his friends, Zardes laughed and said “Oh, man, I don’t even know the number. A lot. A lot.”