Gyasi Zardes of the Los Angeles Galaxy (Noah Salzman)
Gyasi Zardes is someone who does not go unnoticed. From his dynamic speed on the field and his signature blond-and-black Mohawk to his interview at the 2013 MLS SuperDraft where he told Los Angeles Galaxy fans, “My skill is going to blow your mind,” the 22-year-old second-year forward from Hawthorne, Calif. is not afraid of the limelight.
Some may think those are telltale signs of an arrogant player who has yet to be humbled by the realities of life as a young professional athlete. But when he shares various tales from his past, those stories show a player with an unending amount of gratitude for all the people and circumstances that led him to achieve his lifelong dream.
Just like countless kids around the world, Zardes dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player from a young age. He recalls his years in middle school – before he became a prep soccer star at Leuzinger High School – as the time when he first felt he had a chance to become a professional soccer player.
“[Becoming a professional soccer player] has always been a dream, and I knew if I trained every day, I’d get better every day – and I knew I was capable of achieving that goal,” says Zardes. “Kei Kamara, he was a big influence on my life. He graduated from Leuzinger years ahead of me, but he used to always come back and mentor me, he used to always talk to me. Just seeing him make it to [Cal State] Dominguez Hills and seeing him make it into the MLS, I knew if I followed his footsteps I could make it that far.”
Zardes and Kamara remain close even now that Kamara is playing for Middlesbrough in England after seven years in the MLS.
A quick glance through Zardes’ Instagram account reveals even more about the young forward. Pictures of him with his wife and newborn son make up a large share of his posts, along with photos of his days at Cal State Bakersfield and moments with his dad. He credits his father’s tireless efforts as one of the main reasons he made it to the MLS.
“We have a family of five, but my father, he really pushed me,” says Zardes. “He sacrificed a lot for me. He used to come home from work and take me to practice [in Pasadena], which was two hours away, and then two hours back. He used to sacrifice four hours taking me to training through downtown L.A. traffic, so my Dad was definitely a motivation. I thank him for everything he’s done for me to get to where I am now.”
Although Zardes’ background information states his rise to the MLS came through organized youth teams and as an NCAA athlete, he honed his soccer skills near his childhood home in Hawthorne.
“Coming in as a [high-school] freshman, I was playing against these players that used to play in the streets. There was this park by Leuzinger called Jim Thorpe Park, and every day after school everybody used to play there,” he recalls. “[There were] these vacant tennis courts, and they used to have street lights lit, so we used to play until the late hours of the night. It was a great experience just going to Leuzinger and then experiencing this park because everybody from that school who played soccer went to that park to play futsal.”
Zardes admits that watching the U.S. Soccer team in this year’s World Cup triggered strong emotions for him, and just like he told himself he could become a pro in middle school, he continues to set goals today.
“I know all things are possible through Christ, you just have to work hard,” he says. “It’s four more years until another World Cup, that’s a lot of time to grow, work extremely hard, gain some more weight, put on some more muscle, get faster, get better. That’s a lot of time to make the next World Cup squad.”
What Zardes was fortunate to have in his youth that many other kids who aspire to be athletes don’t have is someone like Kamara to give them valuable advice. Because of that, Zardes doesn’t take the fact that he is now a role model himself lightly.
“What I’ll say to the kids is to always have faith and you can achieve anything. A motto I always live by is, ‘Every day you don’t train, somebody else in the world is getting better than you.’ So try to train as much as you can every single day.”
This MLS season Zardes has started in five games and has scored three goals, a vast improvement from the four goals he had in 23 starts last season. There are clear signs that he is maturing rapidly on the field in nuanced ways. He has added more finesse to his flashy skills and has improved his shot selection and presence as a forward.
Although his eye-catching appearance and blunt predictions of his future are the most noticeable qualities about Zardes, neither of those things are going to help him reach his promising potential. If and when he does make it to the World Cup one day and prominently establishes himself on that stage, it is going to be the lessons of humility he has learned over the years that push him to the top.
Considering where the path he chose from a very young age has taken him, there are no indicators that he will ever veer off that same course.
The L.A. Galaxy’s next home games are Aug. 2 (vs. Portland Timbers) and Aug. 8 (vs. San Jose Earthquakes) at StubHub Center. They also take on Manchester United July 23 at the Rose Bowl. For more information, visit lagalaxy.com.