CARSON, Calif. — After Sunday, what does Gyasi Zardes now have in common with DeAndre Yedlin, Omar González, Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron and Graham Zusi?
Answer: They’re all players who used the long January-February U.S. national team camp to vault from being outsiders to joining the full A-squad set-up discussion. With all the talk over Jurgen Klinsmann’s fitness comments over the past week, and with more U.S. A-listers than ever in the January camp (see: Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, etc.), we lost sight of what the main benefit has been from the past four January-February camps:
Emerging players. Young MLSers who earn Klinsmann’s trust not just in games but in the training sessions that take place over the length of the camp. Guys who use the opportunity as a launchpad.
In the wake of Sunday’s 2-0 win here over Panama, here’s a reflection on Klinsmann’s past January-February camp emerging stars, all of whom played big minutes in the 2014 World Cup:
2012: Cameron, Zusi
2013: González, Besler
Zardes, the LA Galaxy midfielder with the Marvin the Martian haircut, isn’t that young—he turned 23 in September—but he’s young enough that the promise he showed in his first national team start (and in the camp itself) should earn him more call-ups moving forward, including for next month’s friendlies with the A-squad at Denmark and Switzerland.
Playing on his home field at the StubHub Center, Zardes was terrific on Sunday, showing speed, smarts and the instincts of knowing when to cut inside and create danger. Learning from Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and Bruce Arena took Zardes’ game to a new level last season with the Galaxy—he had 17 goals in 2014, including one in the MLS Cup final—but even those of us who’ve seen his rise with the Galaxy were surprised by what he did to create the U.S.’s second goal on Sunday.
Bursting inside and upfield from his spot on the flank, Zardes put the Panamanians on their heels and waited until the very last second before Clint Dempsey would have been offside to slide an inch-perfect pass to the U.S. captain, who showed the kind of cool on his finish that gets you multimillion-dollar club deals.
“Credit to him,” said Dempsey of Zardes making a playmaker’s play. “He was able to see the pass, a perfectly weighted ball to me that gave me time and space to take the keeper on and finish it off. He’s been sharp throughout the camp, been fit from Day One. He’s a hard-working kid, and I think he’ll just continue to get better.”
Klinsmann was impressed too.
“We saw that in training the last couple of weeks, that he has a lot of talent and a great attitude, and he’s hungry to deliver,” Kinsmann said. “He had a very good game … He showed certain tools that he has, not only his speed but also to hold the ball and to combine. The assist to Clint was just perfect timing. That shows he has something special. Overall, this is what the camp is about: Do we find two, three or four guys that want to badly break into the real group?”
This camp wasn’t definitive for Zardes, of course. He’ll need to build on what happened here, and he may not be the only young player to emerge from this group. Steve Birnbaum, the D.C. United defender whose minor knee injury kept him from playing Sunday, is another candidate to join Zardes.
Not every player is ready to make the jump from club level to the international game. The speed of play is faster. The players are better. You can’t switch off, ever. But in his first national team start, Zardes showed everyone that he’s capable of making that leap. He said something after the game that showed wisdom beyond the years of a 23-year-old.
“I feel like if I play simple I’m more successful,” Zardes explained.
That’s not something we would have heard him say two years ago. But it also shows how much he’s growing. So quickly, in fact, that watching him on Sunday was like seeing one of those time-lapse videos of a plant growing before your eyes. That’s what Zardes is doing as a soccer player right now.
“I’m always calling myself a student of the game,” he said, “so I need to keep learning. If I give it my all, hopefully I’ll get called back.”
Yes, he will. And that’s the main value of the January-February national team camp.