Gyasi Zardes hopes new location, attitude lead to successful comeback

CARSON, Calif. -- "I'm not playing right-back."

Thus spoke Gyasi Zardes.

Understand that Zardes isn't just a glass half-full kind of guy. His theme song could be "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life." He's a bubbly character, always looking to find the good in things. He's also a steadfast team guy, willing to do just about anything for the greater good.

But it would appear that Zardes hit his limit in 2017. He started off the year having knee surgery, which forced him to miss the LA Galaxy's first three games. He ended it with a groin injury that forced him to miss the last two. In between the Galaxy suffered through the worst campaign in their 22-season history, finishing dead last in the Western Conference.

And yes, there was that three-game stint when Galaxy manager Sigi Schmid opted to deploy Zardes at right-back.

It's a season that would leave a scar -- both physical and emotional -- on anyone, and as Zardes spoke in the depths of StubHub Center, there seemed to be steelier vibe surrounding him. Perhaps it was the pre-game day intensity beginning to manifest itself, but his right-back comment seemed more a statement of intent than a request.

Zardes is also still processing the Jan. 20 trade that sent him from the LA Galaxy to the Columbus Crew. He insists it didn't hurt, but having grown up in nearby Hawthorne, California, the Galaxy was his hometown club -- one in which he came through the academy to reach the first team by way of Cal State-Bakersfield -- and he stuck around to engage in numerous charitable works. Then again, Zardes hinted that maybe his time was up in L.A.

"You've got to realize this is a business," he said. "But at the same time I want to enjoy what I'm doing. If that means leaving, then that's what I have to do."

As for where he'll line up in Columbus, Zardes said, "I don't know which position the coaches are going to play me. I'm an attacking player. That's all that matters."

Zardes has one more task to complete before the moving trucks arrive and he heads to Ohio. For the last two-and-a-half weeks he's been training with the U.S. men's national team ahead of Sunday's friendly against Bosnia & Herzegovina. Interim manager Dave Sarachan knows Zardes well from the years both spent with the Galaxy. And the message from him is that while Zardes still has a ways to go, he's closer to getting back to his best.

"I think he started off in this camp sharper and fitter than I thought he'd be given the year he had," Sarachan said. "Knock on wood, he's been healthy in this camp. I know in his mind there were a lot of unsettled things because he had kept hearing about the possibility of a trade. I think there's been a little more clarity for him now. It's more defined, 'Hey, I'm going,' as opposed to, 'Am I going?'

"I'd say he's heading in the right direction again. He's got to continue to get the soccer better and stay healthy, but he's further ahead than I thought he'd be."

Of course, getting the soccer better has been the big challenge for Zardes throughout his career. He's heard all the jokes and criticisms about his poor touch and the below-par numbers he put up last year (just two goals and two assists in 24 league appearances). The topic reveals another shot of resolve, motivation that perhaps has a different flavor to it than before.

"I worked extremely hard to get where I am, so I'm not going to let the voice of people that don't matter to me affect me," he said. "They didn't put in the work to get to where I am. They didn't contribute to what I'm doing. So why should they have any impact on my game, or their words affecting me? I don't pay any attention to it. I don't focus on it because even if I score 300 goals, and every touch is a perfect touch, you will still get criticized. That's just the way this world revolves."

Will Zardes be the player that scored 16 goals in 2014, when the Galaxy claimed their most recent MLS Cup? That seems unlikely, given that there's no Landon Donovan or Robbie Keane around to attract the attention of defenders. But in Columbus there is a Federico Higuain and a Wil Trapp that can slip passes to him in good spots. There's a very respected coach there as well in Gregg Berhalter, one that has had success in unlocking the potential in players. Health will also play a big role, as it does in any attempted comeback.

"You've got to play more games to get better," Zardes said. "You can train as much as you want, but coming from injury, if you're not playing games it's difficult to get into rhythm. I think just playing more games is going to help me get back to where I used to be."

The first step comes on Sunday.