Meet Gyasi Zardes, the USMNT's most criticized and underappreciated player

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Meet Gyasi Zardes, the USMNT's most criticized and underappreciated player
Meet Gyasi Zardes, the USMNT's most criticized and underappreciated player

HOUSTON – Go ahead. Do a search for "Zardes first touch."

The results aren't kind. They're even more scathing on Twitter (unsurprisingly).

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Gyasi Zardes gets criticized by American soccer fans more than any other player on the United States men's national team, and it's all because of the belief that he has a heavy first touch of the ball with his feet, most painfully when the U.S. is on the attack. The derision has gotten so out of hand that someone created a video compiling these type of first touches by the Los Angeles Galaxy star.

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This isn't the first time a USMNT player has become the focus of constant criticism. Previously, left backs Jonathan Bornstein and Timmy Chandler were fan-favorite targets for their defensive shortcomings. Now it's Zardes who's receiving this unfavorable scrutiny.

But U.S. supporters, like it or not, must hope for the best from Zardes. The 24-year-old is expected to assume a larger offensive role when the Americans take on Argentina, the world's top-ranked team, in the Copa America Centenario semifinals before a sold-out NRG Stadium crowd on Tuesday.

With Bobby Wood suspended due to yellow card accumulation, Zardes is the only forward on the U.S. roster who has the pace to make the necessary runs to be a constant threat for the sometimes-suspect Argentine defense. He could be moved up the field into Wood's spot as the striker partner of Clint Dempsey, or he could fulfill that need for speed from a wing position in midfield.

Either way, Zardes will be a key figure in its bid to achieve what would be a monumental upset and historic result for the U.S.

"I've watched various clips of Bobby and his work rate. It's phenomenal," said Zardes, who knows he'll have to retain his defensive responsibilities despite the increased offensive role. "If I'm chosen to play that role up top, I'll try to do the same, you know, work extremely hard and just be an outlet for my teammates."

Zardes's diligence with the Galaxy during a breakout 2014 in Major League Soccer got the attention of Klinsmann and his staff. Under the tutelage of Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, the Cal State Bakersfield alum scored 17 goals in his second pro season, including the opening goal of L.A.'s 2-1 extra-time victory over New England in the MLS Cup final. A month later, Zardes got an email invite from Klinsmann to attend his first U.S. training camp.

"This is a dream," a proud Zardes said then. "This is what you dream about."

But along with the honor of playing for your country comes the hot national team spotlight. And it was under that microscope where Zardes's main attributes, namely his size and speed, were no longer being noticed. Eventually, his heavy first touch of the ball became a recurring obsession with fans, as it would often result in giving the ball right back to the opponent.

Zardes addressed the issue after the USMNT's final pre-Copa friendly against Bolivia in which he scored two goals, ironically enough, with two well-placed first touches past the goalkeeper.

"To be honest, me personally, I think I have a good first touch," the Hawthorne, Calif., native said. "It's just sometimes I'm unlucky during games."

"I don't dwell on what people say because growing up where I grew up, a lot of people try to criticize you but yet they're not the ones who are playing."

"Sometimes it's perfect, and maybe the next day it's not so good," Klinsmann said of Zardes. "But it's totally fine – because every player has his strengths and weaknesses."

Zardes has been a factor in slowing down the opposition at the Copa America, but he's also made an impact offensively the last two games. He set up Dempsey's goal in a 1-0 victory over Paraguay that won the USA's group and then scored the deciding goal in last Thursday's 2-1 quarterfinal win over Ecuador.

That hasn't stopped the social-media chatter about Zardes's first touch, of course. But as we've learned with this USMNT, criticism only fuels the collective fire of this 23-man squad. And the Americans are fully embracing the challenge of trying to beat Lionel Messi and the mighty Argentina in the biggest game of their lives.

"It's going to be great just to face off and play against Argentina," Zardes said. "It's just a huge accomplishment and I'm going to work extremely hard to give it all I can to win that game."

 

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