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How the USMNT shapes Gyasi Zardes in LA

A look at Gyasi Zardes' positioning for club and country.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Gyasi Zardes had a great national team camp earlier this year with solid outings against both Chile and Panama.  Perhaps you saw his Landon Donovan-esque pinpoint pass to Clint Dempsey for a goal. Gyasi's camp was so good he was rightfully called back into the national team side for the March friendlies.

What's his best position?

In LA, Bruce Arena starts Zardes up top with Keane and periodically moves him to the wings late in matches when another forward (e.g. Alan Gordon) gets subbed into the match. With Landon Donovan thriving in midfield, Gyasi settled in at forward for much of 2014.  Early into the 2015 season, that doesn't look like it's changing.

Jurgen Klinsmann has predominantly played Zardes out wide on the right, with one stint at forward against Switzerland. It is unclear whether this was due to Aron Johannsson's injury, or if Jurgen felt putting Zardes up top was Gyasi's prime position. Regardless, Zardes is not going to displace Jozy Altidore or Clint Dempsey upfront, and because the U.S. has a general lack of options on the wings, Zardes will likely continue to be a midfielder for the national team.

So what can LA fans learn from Gyasi's national team stints?

In National Team Camp

Against Chile, Zardes looked promising in his 20 minutes.  The majority of his passes were in the attacking third, he had a shot on target after a marauding run, and he used the flank to his advantage, pressing up the right.

Due to his performance, he earned the start against Panama. He rewarded his coach's decision by providing that aforementioned assist, but also by being very involved.  He was all over the right hand side, though cut in when it made sense.  He only had 4 unsuccessful passes relative to his 31 successful passes.  His Panamanian counterpart rarely saw the ball as Zardes pinned him back, which might explain why the Panamanian was subbed at minute 55.  Zardes had 10 recoveries on the right hand side from the pressure he applied - more than anyone else on the team.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that Zardes combined with Dempsey - a player that has habits and movement similar to Keane's.

Great outing. March call back.

With the LA Galaxy

Even with the team's slow start (what else is new?) one can analyze how Zardes has played so far.  The creative vacuum in midfield represented by LD's departure should be recognized, as it impacts Zardes largely because Donovan was Gyasi's favorite set up man.

Digging deeper into Gyasi's Galaxy movement:

  • Gyasi floats - left, right, center...he goes where the play dictates, but more likely, where he can most benefit Robbie Keane.
  • Zardes' passes surround Keane's - and that makes sense in LA where Keane is dictating play. We've all seen the "Keane point," where his pointer finger is out, and God help you if you're late to pass (generating the "Keane meltdown").
  • Gyasi is #2 of the forward pool and that's okay when you've got the league MVP playing with you. But it also lets Keane dictate movement. Gyasi hasn't hit the level where he's proactively dictating play. He's combining.
  • All 5 of his open play crosses were unsuccessful.

When Bruce puts Zardes on the wing if LA is winning, it's typically to defend and use his athleticism and speed to keep the opposing team honest in waning minutes.  When losing, like this past weekend, it's to make room for another forward and to try and stretch the opposing team's defense.  Aka, he's not a creative outlet.

All of this was before the LA vs. Vancouver game this past weekend - where the midfield performance was so abject Keane had a grand total of ONE touch in the 18 over the course of 90 minutes.  Giving Zardes a pass on that one.

Against Denmark

The question remained - what could Zardes do on the national team wing against better competition?  Denmark loomed.

Earning another start, Zardes didn't look as good.  The operative word was:  "invisible."  It shows in his stats:

  • 14 successful passes over 90 minutes
  • Passes clumped together in the same spot on the border of the attacking third
  • Not much usage of the flank
  • 5 unsuccessful passes most of which are long range passes to the left
  • 2 recoveries

Zardes could have been nervous and overawed, but beyond that the Danish counterparts in midfield were decent - both Poulsen and Krohn-Delhi are all over Gyasi and Chandler's side.  Zardes and Chandler were overwhelmed (even with support from Bradley and Bedoya), something we saw in action during the game.  When the US couldn't keep possession, the problem was exacerbated - the national team was chasing the ball all night long (barring a stretch in the 2nd half).

In games where the US midfield is overrun, Zardes isn't going to shine.  He's not a creative possession player.  We see this in LA - he likes to get on the end of passes.  Not create them.  Though he is much better at one-touch footy and combinations due to working with Donovan and Keane, it is just not his forte to be proactively one-touching the ball around with pace on the wings.  He does appear to have learned a thing or two about the counter as demonstrated by his great pass to Dempsey - but the US hasn't looked great on the counter in some time.

Against Switzerland

As a whole, the team looked better against Switzerland with a semblance of an attack.  Zardes got to play his theoretical preferred position.  Did Zardes contribute?

  • Gyasi had one great touch on the right hand side - dangerously crossing into the 18 after his beating his man. He needed to do more of that. Unfortunately, that's his only touch near the 18.
  • The majority of his passes are right at the midfield stripe.
  • Other than the cross, he only has two successful forward passes in the attacking third.
  • Bedoya is on average further forward than Zardes - providing most of the national team's creative attack. Bedoya combined with Zardes on the right.
  • Other than the midfield stripe, he and Jozy are not combining with one another. Very few passes between the two of them.
  • From the 67th minute to when he was subbed in the 89th, he had four touches. When Altidore left the game (68th minute), Gyasi's night was over.
  • Altidore wasn't having a barnstormer either with limited passing in the attacking third as well. Most of the US attack came from Bedoya and Bradley.

In hindsight, playing with a forward that didn't combine up top (Altidore) meant that Zardes would have to create his own chances.  To his credit, he did try to link up with Bedoya to likely try and replicate his own play with LD.  However, he was doing this on the right hand side - he typically plays on the left with Keane.  Slightly new position, international speed, a new player in Bedoya...all equaled struggle.  Seeing Zardes gravitate towards Bedoya in the effort to combine was a distinct positive - activity that he learned in LA and was looking to repeat.  It was progress versus the nonexistent performance against Denmark.

As Zardes continues to practice how to dictate play and see passes - something that Keane will teach him - he may turn into the type of player the US could use on the wing.  But at this time, the lack of crossing ability, the desire to cut in and find the play, counter attacking speed and the ability to combine seems to dictate that playing with up top would be the better option.  This is exactly how he has settled in LA.

In other words, something we're reminded of from time to time in regards to player position:

Bruce knows best.