Gyasi Zardes had 67 caps for the U.S. men’s national team prior to Sunday’s visit to Canada for the 10th round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, plenty of opportunity to demonstrate what sort of player he is at the international level. Roughly a third of those appearances were registered since 2019, which means coach Gregg Berhalter has had a good, long look at him.
All one really needed to know about his presence in the starting lineup for this game, though, could be found on Zardes’ page on USsoccer.com. Because it lists Zardes as a forward, and under the category of “goals” for the national team, it reveals he has scored 14 times.
That’s a little more than one for every five games played, which isn’t a lot for a center forward, and only two have come in his last dozen games, an even less frequent rate. And for a team that had scored only 13 times in nine previous games of this World Cup qualifying cycle, “a lot” should have been the objective.
“We still want to be better in front of goal,” Berhalter told reporters following a 2-0 loss to Canada in Hamilton, Ontario. “I don’t think we created that many clear-cut chances that we should have finished off. I think it was more the lack of chance creation, lack of precision in the final third.”
Yeah, but the striker didn’t help in this circumstance. In the 42nd minute, Zardes got the ball in behind Canada’s right back but managed only to end up with a throw-in. In the 63rd, he was easily ridden off a long throw-in that could have developed into something.
“I don’t think we got him enough service in the box to get him dangerous; he’s good on crosses” Berhalter said. “He certainly gave them a hard time both on and off the ball.”
The most vexing thing about Berhalter’s approach to his rosters and lineups with the USMNT since qualifying commenced in September has been his approach to the center forward position. He has ignored several bigger, stronger, even more prolific forwards in favor of experience (in some cases) and technical ability (in others).
Jordan Pefok, who stands 6-3 and has scored 16 times in 30 games for Young Boys in the Swiss Premier League and UEFA Champions League this season, was part of last June’s Nation’s League triumph but has not been called to any qualifying roster since September. Daryl Dike, who recently moved from MLS to England’s West Bromwich Albion, has not been called at all, partially because of injury, but not entirely. He stands 6-foot-2 and has scored three times in eight games for the USA.
Zardes also stands 6-foot-2, which is one reason Berhalter played him against Canada. “We knew what the game was going to look like,” Berhalter said. “We knew it was a very narrow field, small field. We knew it was going to be a very physical game and we thought that Gyasi would give us that physicality. I think he did that.”
When the U.S. opened this three-game window Thursday in Columbus against El Salvador, Berhalter chose to start Jesus Ferreira in the center of the three-person front line, with Christian Pulisic to the left and Timothy Weah to the right. Ferreira is a fine player who recently earned a huge raise from FC Dallas, but he is not a prolific scorer, ringing up 18 goals in 81 appearances for his club. The Americans were fortunate to leave that game with a 1-0 victory, the goal coming courtesy of left back Antonee ‘Jedi’ Robinson.
In the current qualifying cycle, the USMNT has gotten as many goals from its defenders (two for Robinson and one for Sergino Dest) as its strikers (all three from young Ricardo Pepi). That’s somewhat a reflection on the opportunities provided for Pepi, Ferreira and Zardes, but also on their varying ability to take advantage. It’s also on Berhalter, whose approach lately is putting insufficient weight on a striker’s ability to produce goals. Pepi has shown the most ability to do that, but failing to score in three qualifying starts led him to the bench.
“I think that all these opponents are different, all of them bring different elements, and we want to pick the best striker that we think can get the job done in that particular game,” Berhalter said. “It will be a gameplan-specific striker.”
Berhalter’s attitude toward the central position on the forward line of his 4-3-3 formation runs counter to his history as a head coach, particularly with the Columbus Crew. His best team, which made the MLS Cup final in 2015, rejuvenated Kei Kamara’s career with a 22-goal season. Ola Kamara replaced him and became a valued commodity with seasons of 16 and 18 goals. And when Zardes took over in 2018, he revived his career with 19 league goals. Everything fed into those three players, and they punished defenses. Zardes in MLS, though, is a more prolific scorer than Zardes with the USMNT.
It is possible to run a prolific 4-3-3 with the center functioning primarily as a conduit or playmaker, as Liverpool does under Jurgen Klopp. But it helps to have a finisher such as Mohamed Salah to make that work.
With Christian Pulisic struggling again and Timothy Weah unavailable because he did not meet Canada’s vaccine requirements for entry, the U.S. lacked any such threat from the wings, although on a field that might not have been 70 yards wide, the wings were sort of clipped.
“At this level, there’s not many chances in really tight games,” Berhalter said. “In difficult games against difficult opponents, that’s the greatest question, and that’s the hardest thing to do.”
He praised the team’s dominance of the ball, but the objective of the game remains to strike the ball, with a foot, head or chest but not arm, into the goal. That’s not what Gyasi Zardes does in a USMNT uniform, and he did not do it again Sunday.