Gyasi Zardes’ international career has been harder to kill than any of those horror movie heroes. No matter how many times The Next Big Striker returns, ready to supplant him, the Columbus Crew forward keeps coming back to score goals for the United States.
Thursday’s Gold Cup semi-final against Qatar was just the latest example. On a night when the United States was largely dominated by the reigning continental champions Asia, Zardes was in the perfect place at the perfect time, redirecting the bass and center feed from Nicholas Gioacchini in the 86th minute – after the good Previous work by another substitute, Eryk Williamson – to give the Americans a 1-0 victory and a place in Sunday’s final.
That Zardes took on the role of hero is probably a surprise to many observers. There have long been calls to replace him with younger, more technical players. But the continued impact of the Crew striker comes as no surprise to Gregg Berhalter. He has long had an affinity for Zardes, saving the striker’s career after he fell out of favor – and even spent time at the back – in his final season with the LA Galaxy in 2017.
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Even in this tournament, Zardes was far from the top pick, with the bulk of the minutes going to Daryl Dike. But Berhalter has never forgotten what Zardes can do. The striker’s six goals led the team into 2019, the last full campaign before the pandemic. And with Dike struggling, Zardes was fortunate enough to have an impact on the bench. He delivered once again.
“He’s the quintessential team player,” Berhalter said of Zardes after the game. “And he supports the whole team, and all he wants is for the group to win. I think he came in and had a big impact, and that’s the kind of guy he is. is. His pace of work is still there. He’s still dangerous for chances. And he showed it again today. “
It was a night where if it had been a boxing match the United States would have fallen far behind in points. As usual, Qatar were content to relinquish possession and try to tackle the United States on the break. But not only did the Qataris threaten during the transition, there were also times when they effectively separated the American defense from a patient build-up.
“I think the problem in the first half was that our attacking midfielders weren’t in the pockets enough, and we didn’t find them enough in dangerous positions to then activate the wingers and the striker behind the back line “said Berhalter.
The American manager also lamented his team’s inability to win duels, and he mentioned that this was something that will need to improve in the final.
Without American goalkeeper Matt Turner, Qatar could very well have put the game out of reach of the Americans before half-time. According to ESPN Stats & Informatioin, Turner was only credited with three saves, but two in particular were exceptional, with Turner pushing a deflection from teammate James Sands around the post in the 13th minute and then pinpointing the attempted breakout. Abdulaziz Hatem three minutes later.
By this point, Turner – and some of his teammates – had taken up residence in Qatar’s collective head, and that proved crucial in the 61st minute. After a lengthy VAR examination, it was found that Sands had eliminated Akram Afif. Kellyn Acosta then engaged in a play as he tried to destabilize Qatar penalty kick taker Hassan Al-Haydos. Al-Haydos then tried to drive his attempt into the net, but instead sent him over the bar, and the United States was still alive.
“Listen, I don’t think the words that [were] says it’ll be good for a press conference, but that’s just okay, Turner said of preparing for the penalty attempt. “It was a great moment, obviously, in an international tournament. The tensions are high, the emotions are high. And for me, I just tried to let the guy know that I knew, that I was watching his shots on goal.
“I think even before, I kind of mimicked his run as I came back to my goal, to try and disturb him a bit. Wait as long as possible in the middle, because I knew he was collapsing the middle earlier in this tournament, and see what happens from there. So even though I kinda took the wrong direction, I would like to think that a combination of all things – my team delaying the shot , me holding my pitch – – it all led up to that moment. And that was a great moment for us, and we were able to build that momentum for the last 30 minutes of the game and score the goal. “
If this trade marked the reversal of the trend, a series of American replacements tipped the game in the American side again. Zardes, Cristian Roldan and Reggie Cannon entered in the 63rd minute. Williamson – barely used in the tournament – and Gioacchini made their entry in the 81st minute. Qatar had shown a tendency to tire in the second half and the introductions proved to be decisive.
“When the substitutes came in there was a lot more movement, a lot more threat to the back line,” said Berhalter.
The fatigue Qatar was feeling, one they admitted in their post-match interviews, is something Zardes noticed from the moment he stepped onto the pitch.
“I looked at a few of their defenders, and when I saw him huff and huff after leading the channel once, I was like, ‘You know what? This will motivate me to keep running and working hard, just so that we can we can [win] this game and not to go into extra time, ”he said.
And it was Zardes who delivered the coup de grace, delivering a first finish after intelligent work by Gioacchini and Williamson. Zardes has long said he paid no attention to comments made about him. And as for not to start, Zardes professes his faith in the decisions Berhalter and the rest of the coaching staff make, and if that means he’s on the bench, so be it.
“The decision is up to the coaching staff. They have a plan, and so far the plan has worked,” Zardes said. “But you know, if my name is called to start or come off the bench, I have to make sure I’m prepared mentally and physically, and that’s what I did because when you play in a tournament you have to be ready when your name is called. There are so many different factors, so I’m just going to make sure I’m ready if my name is called. “
Now Zardes and the rest of his teammates have one more game to go. On the one hand, reaching a Gold Cup final is expected of the United States, regardless of who takes the field. But given the group’s relative inexperience, this team has done well to get this far and have found ways to win under difficult circumstances. While it remains to be seen who from this group will be called up to the full squad when the World Cup qualifiers begin, that mental toughness is a valuable trait to have.
They will have a chance to show this attribute again on Sunday.