At the start of the 2018 season, just staying healthy was at the forefront for Gyasi Zardes.
Fast-forward nearly 10 months later and the 27-year-old is now Major League Soccer’s 2018 Comeback Player of the Year following a career-high 19 regular-season goals, the most by an American in MLS this season.
“I would have looked back at the beginning of the year and defined a successful season as injury free, playing the whole year healthy,” Zardes said.
When asked what were key factors to his breakout season, Zardes emphasized the welcoming locker room and coaching staff.
“You know I’m always confident in my ability to succeed, whether I’m coming off an injury or a strain, but you know, for myself, I would give a lot of credit to the coaching staff and also my teammates. They welcomed me with open arms and from day one, since I’ve been implemented into the system, they’ve been amazing teammates.”
Zardes' 19 goals mark the third-highest single regular-season total all-time in Crew SC history and led the club in game-winning goals (four) and minutes played (2,948). Additionally, Zardes earned three caps for the U.S. Men's National Team in 2018, featuring against Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil and Mexico.
Zardes joined Crew SC in January of 2018 and knew right from preseason the scoring potential Gregg Berhalter's system presented.
“I knew right away,” Zardes said. “After preseason, I knew right away that I was going to have success here. We had a strong preseason and this system allowed me to kind of bring out the best in myself, and I’m really motivated to keep progressing and now that we are in the playoff stretch of things, but I knew right away that this system would allow the striker numerous opportunities to score.”
Following consecutive injury-plagued seasons in 2016 and 2017 with the LA Galaxy, including a few appearances out of his natural striker role, Zardes reflected on his change in perspective and the tribulations that come with injury, both physically and mentally.
“I’ve had over three surgeries now and two surgeries over the last two years I believe, but throughout those times it’s extremely difficult - mentally and physically - because one, you’re trying to stay positive when you are not playing and that’s so difficult,” Zardes said.
“And two, on the physical side of things, [I could not] do a lot of things because I have to stay off my feet or not utilize my legs so I can recover.”
Being sidelined represented a chance for reflection and change of attitude for Zardes.
“But [I learned] a lot of patience and really [reflected] on just life in general because I think as an athlete, when you’re hurt, you have these moments that flash by you; little things that you took for granted when you were healthy. So me getting hurt, I always told myself, if I’m healthy, I’m going to give it my all day-in and day-out…After getting hurt, it kind of changed my perspective on things and help me not take things for granted.”
It’s often assumed that if a player is back on the field, one expects the same type of output and performance prior to an injury. Of course, Zardes’ career year has only gone above and beyond any expectation and it’s a testament to that work that isn’t necessarily available to the public eye.
“[Winning the award] means a lot to me because the last couple of years have been extremely difficult and it just shows that all the hard work I’ve been doing to get healthy and all the hard work I’ve been doing to stay healthy, it’s being recognized,” Zardes said.
As to the “how” part of the equation, winning this award has been a complete team effort.
“I’m so thankful to be on a team that not only wants to play me in a position that allows me to be successful, but also be on a team where the staff is constantly analyzing my data, whether it’s my weight, my nutrition, my physical standout. You know they are doing all the hard work to make sure I am performing to the best of my ability and I give my teammates, the staff, my family, my friends – this is like our award. It’s not just mine because a lot plays a factor into this.”
Crew SC competes in Leg 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the New York Red Bulls on Sunday, Nov. 11 at Red Bull Arena. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET.