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Gyasi Zardes is Columbus Crew’s biggest threat against D.C. United

The striker notched 19 goals in his first season playing under Gregg Berhalter

After moving from the LA Galaxy to the Columbus Crew this offseason, Gyasi Zardes found his form against as a striker in MLS. After breaking out in 2014, scoring 16 goals on a team with Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, the up and coming US striker never reached the same heights again with the Galaxy. The next three years, Zardes totaled 14 league goals, while being shunted out wide in a winger role, or even worse, having to play right back.

Neither of which suit him.

In moving to Columbus, Zardes got to work under Gregg Berhalter, who has a fantastic record of getting the most out of his strikers in recent years. Berhalter has built a system in Ohio that in which the forwards are mostly focused on final runs, converting chances in the box.

‘Gyasi scores a bunch of goals for them,” D.C. United Head Coach Ben Olsen said on Wednesday about the Crew’s danger man. “Around the league, people know that forwards that go to Columbus end up scoring a lot of goals. [Gregg’s] done a good job with his forwards.”

And the results have been overwhelmingly positive. In Berhalter’s second year in charge, Kei Kamara, in his only full season with the Crew, notched 22 goals. When Kei was traded away early in 2016, Ola Kamara stepped up, and scored 16 goals. Kamara added 18 in 2017, before being traded for Zardes in this past offseason.

And all Gyasi did in coming to Crew was set a personal record with 19 goals scored. That total ended up being nearly half of the 43 goals that the Crew scored in 2018. With his teammates providing just 24 goals amongst them in the regular, Zardes comes into tonight’s knockout round game as far and away the most likely goal threat against United.

“A lot of those goals come from him in the box. He’s athletic, fast, has great timing in the air,” United right back Nick DeLeon had to say about Zardes. “And he likes to play off your shoulder. That’s a tricky spot to defend. He likes to sit in that blind spot.”

Here’s a look at some of Zardes’ goals throughout the year, and the different challenges he poises for defenders over the course of 90 minutes.

March 3rd vs Toronto FC

Early in the second half of his first appearance with the Crew, the US national team player would set down a marker for what to expect of him under Berhalter. Playing off the back shoulder against Chris Mavinga, Zardes raced onto the pass from Pedro Santos in the box, and finished first time.

Zardes, as you can see in the clip, is constantly moving around the back line, as the Crew move the ball from midfield to attack. Mavinga appears to be generally aware of Zardes’ positioning, but is in no way closely marking the striker. That’s down to Zardes taking advantage of the threat poised by Pedro Santos’ run. And when the time comes, Zardes uses a burst of acceleration to get onto the pass, and finish with one touch.

In 2018, Zardes scored 16 non-penalty goals. 13 of which, he converted on the first touch. Two other goals were scored with two touches, while the real outlier came against Atlanta United in August, when Zardes scored a goal with four touches. All told, Zardes took 21 touches on his 16 goals from the run of play.

Contrast that with Luciano Acosta’s two goals against Atlanta in September. Combined, on those two goals, Acosta took 14 touches on those two goals, or two-thirds of the touches that Zardes took all year on his goals.

It should be important to note that only two of Zardes’ goals came on the road in 2018. The first was the one shown about against Toronto, the second was the four touch goal against the Five Stripes. Despite far and away leading his team in goals, Zardes actually came second in goals scored on the road.

May 12 vs Chicago Fire

Another example of the runs that Gyasi makes that ends in a goal. First, this is an excellent play by Niko Hansen to create the goal. The Fire’s defending along the sideline is suspect, but Hansen exploits that to get the assist here.

Notice when Gyasi breaks towards goal, he stays behind center back Johan Kappelhof. It looks like Zardes is going to try to make a back post run, which keeps him out of the sight of Kappelhof. Kappelhof turns back a couple of times to check on Zardes, but his main focus is on the ball. Then in the box, Zardes runs towards the near post, which Kappelhof sees, and tries to cover.

Because Hansen is creating a threat in the box, Kappelhof decides to get in front of the winger, as Zardes hits the brakes. That decision from Zardes, taking a step back towards the middle of the box, is what helps this play end in a goal. There’s not much room for Hansen with two defenders and the keeper around him, but because Zardes’ positioning makes the pass and finish much easier. A less aware striker might make a run that takes him too far away from the ball, or even aides the opposition in defending both players.

October 28 vs Minnesota United

This goal is a perfect example of what happens when a defender switches off in the box. If you are not engaged for even a moment, Zardes is capable of making you pay. Firstly, Wyatt Omsberg makes an error by dropping further back than every other defender in the box, which allows Hansen to stay onside for Harrison Afful’s pass.

At this point, the Crew have got the ball into one of the more dangerous areas, near the end line. Once you have the ball that deep in the box, a cut back in front of goal will always end in a chance, provided there’s an attacking player making a run in front of goal.

Zardes in this case, takes advantage of Omsberg’s lack of commitment, while cutting in front of Michael Boxall to get in front of goal. Omsberg, who might be put off by the presence of Patrick Mullins, doesn’t go out to defend the cross. Omsberg also doesn’t find someone from the Crew to mark, he’s just stuck in no man’s land. That’s where Zardes takes advantage, darting towards the goal, and bundling home a shot for a hat trick, the first one in his professional career.

That goal for Columbus was the difference between playing against New York City FC for the knockout round, and traveling to Audi Field.

United will still have to stay wary of Columbus in other ways. Federico Higuain , Justin Meram, Hansen, and Santos are all capable of providing a game deciding moment. There’s also a chance that Mullins, formerly of the Black-and-Red, will come on in the second half, especially if the Crew are down a goal.

But United’s chances of moving on to face the New York Red Bulls will improve greatly if they can keep tabs on Zardes at all times, and hound him every time he gets into the box.