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Galaxy’s Gyasi Zardes on the rise with U.S. national soccer team

With Peru’s Josepmir Ballon in pursuit, Gyasi Zardes takes off during Americans’ 2-1 victory at RFK Stadium on Friday. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

BOSTON – With the dawn of a new World Cup cycle, national team coaches are afforded the time and elasticity to introduce prospects, to reinstate the experienced for another look and, to some extent, set a fresh course with the player pool.

For U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, that process has allowed for the discovery and ascent of Gyasi Zardes, a 24-year-old attacker with bleached hair from the Los Angeles Galaxy. He made his national team debut in January and has played in all but one of 15 matches; only World Cup holdovers Michael Bradley and DeAndre Yedlin have logged as many appearances.

If Zardes plays in the five remaining games this year, starting with Tuesday’s friendly against Brazil at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., he will equal Hall of Famer Claudio Reyna for most appearances by a first-year U.S. player, a record that has stood since 1994.

“He gives us a new element that we didn’t have in the World Cup last year,” Klinsmann said. “With that speed and also with his tremendous workload coming back, we suddenly have another option that we can play out.”

With Zardes on the left flank and the swift Yedlin on the right, “it makes it not easy for opponents,” Klinsmann added.

Zardes took another positive step Friday during a 2-1 comeback victory over Peru at RFK Stadium, playing 90 minutes and bolstering the attack in the second half after the team’s sluggish start. Belying his experience, he ran at defenders with conviction, looked comfortable against a strong South American opponent and assisted on Jozy Altidore’s go-ahead goal in the 68th minute.

“Taking guys on is something that is always growing,” said Zardes, whose four assists are second to Bradley’s five. “As a striker and as a winger, I am starting to see the game differently. They gave me space, so I tried to utilize it with my speed.”

A native of Hawthorne, Calif., 10 miles from the Galaxy’s home at Carson’s StubHub Center, Zardes rose in the MLS club’s development academy and played three seasons at Cal State Bakersfield. Over the last two years, he scored a combined 33 goals for the Roadrunners.

After his junior season, Zardes signed a homegrown contract with the Galaxy. Coach Bruce Arena did not hesitate to use him in first-team matches. Zardes started 23 times and posted four goals and four assists.

Last year, he scored 16 times, sixth in MLS’s scoring race, and became the first homegrown player to score in the MLS Cup final.

Klinsmann took notice and called him into the national team’s annual winter camp.

Zardes debuted in Chile, made his first start 11 days later against Panama and continued to receive call-ups. He scored against the Netherlands in Amsterdam in June and against Cuba a month later in the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinals in Baltimore.

Aside from the Gold Cup third-place match, Zardes has not missed a game. Juggling U.S. assignments and MLS duty, he has posted six goals and three assists for the Galaxy this season.

“Bruce Arena has done a fantastic job with him,” Klinsmann said. “He has groomed him and brought out more variations in his game. He is growing at such a fast speed.”

European clubs reportedly have begun targeting Zardes. During the recent transfer window, Arena dismissed speculation about an imminent move.

“If you believe anything you read today in papers or websites, you’re a dope. Well, most things, you’d have to be pretty stupid to believe,” Arena told reporters in Los Angeles last month. “My guess is that Gyasi is going to be playing with us.”

Klinsmann’s hope is that, with a fast introduction to serious competition, Zardes will be well-seasoned for the start of 2018 World Cup qualifying, which begins in November and will span for almost two years.

Friendlies against formidable foes — Chile, Mexico, Netherlands, Germany, Peru and Brazil – have moved along the development.

“It’s crucial for the players in terms of psychological preparation to have an understanding of how important the mental side is in our game – believing you can play against the best in the world and actually do well against the best in the world,” Klinsmann said. “You only get that if you play them. ‘Can I actually compete against these guys?’ This learning curve means a lot.”

During his four-year tenure, Klinsmann has repeatedly emphasized the importance of young players taking initiative and setting a course for their club and international careers. Asked to name someone who has grasped the message, Klinsmann first mentioned Zardes: “He is driving his ambitions.”

Said Zardes: “As time has gone by, I am starting to get more comfortable. I’m still learning.”

Older teammates have noticed his growth.

“His effort is fantastic,” Altidore said. “He’s always an outlet. He’s always dangerous. He gets the ball, and he always has a defender on his back foot.”

The Peru and Brazil friendlies serve as tuneups for the CONCACAF Cup against Mexico on Oct. 10 at the Rose Bowl. The winner will advance to the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia, an eight-team tournament one year before the World Cup.

With experimental rosters behind him, Klinsmann will field his strongest available lineup next month.

Is he comfortable, though, starting Zardes in a consequential match against a fierce rival before an expected 90,000 spectators?

Said Klinsmann: “Absolutely, absolutely.”


United States vs. Brazil

Where: Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

When: Tuesday at 8:15 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN2, UniMas, Univision Deportes.