CARSON, Calif. – There was a youth movement among the LA Galaxy attacking corps in 2013 as head coach Bruce Arena entrusted a series of young strikers to accompany Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane in spearheading the Galaxy attack. Their initial foray into the professional ranks now complete, the expectations will be raised heading into next season.
After the departures of players like Edson Buddle, Christian Wilhelmsson and Chad Barrett in the offseason and Mike Magee in May, Arena afforded time to the youthful contingent of Chandler Hoffman, Jack McBean, Charlie Rugg, Jose Villarreal, and Gyasi Zardes during MLS and CONCACAF Champions League participation.
Leading the way from that group was the Homegrown Player trio of McBean, Villarreal and Zardes who combined for eight goals and seven assists in MLS play.
“They got a little better, but they’re still young and they have to step up being men every day in training and when they’re opportunities come, they have to grab them,” Arena said of the tandem of Villarreal and McBean, who made career-highs of 22 and 15 regular season appearances respectively.
“[Meanwhile,] Gyasi had a good year, but he fell short in terms of finishing plays off. He could have had a number of goals this year, but fell a little bit short. We have to hope that this year was a good experience for him as he grows into a more responsible role with finishing off plays.”
One of the people most responsible for the growth of the young forwards was Galaxy associate head coach Dave Sarachan.
A former striker himself who played two seasons for the Rochester Lancers of the NASL in the 1970s, Sarachan frequently worked with the young attackers as they perfected their positioning and final touch late into training. Sarachan described the usage of young forwards as a “delicate balance” but admitted that the club was optimistic that their heavy investment in youth will pay off in the future.
“These guys banked some important minutes so we can rely on them in the future. Youth is still important and that blend of veteran savviness and youthful energy requires the right balance,” said Sarachan. “We have hope with all of them. There’s no set time table for how it all comes together but the common denominator is that they understand what it means to be a professional.”
No one player was “invested” in more than the 22-year-old Zardes, who made a total of 33 appearances for the Galaxy in all competitions over the past year. After undergoing foot surgery to repair a cracked fifth metatarsal in his left foot in the preseason, Zardes debuted in the lineup in late April and became a regular fixture in LA’s starting lineup in late May. Fully recovered from his injury by that time, Zardes started each of the club’s final 23 regular season games as well as both playoff games against Real Salt Lake.
There was a change, however, as he shifted from the central striker role that he played during his three years at CSU Bakersfield to a spot on the left side of Bruce Arena’s four-man midfield. After being used both up front and on the wing through the first half of the season, Zardes was permanently transitioned to the midfield, a natural fit for a player with his combination of speed and nose for goal, in August after the Guinness International Champions Cup. Throughout it all, Zardes was a threat to score as contributed four goals and four assists in regular season play while leading the team in shots with 78, though just 23 of those, less than 30 percent, were on target. Although such a haul may be success for any typical rookie, Zardes is demanding more of himself in 2014.
“I want to improve and take this year in consideration. I want to learn from the rookie year and work extremely hard during the offseason and once we begin the preseason,” Zardes told reporters. “I won’t have a surgery [to recover from]. I’ll have a year under my belt and I expect to mature.
“I loved that Bruce gave us time because it helped us grow playing with the best team in the league. It was very helpful.”
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The development of the young forwards like Zardes remains an ongoing process, but the Galaxy expect a return on their investment come next season.
“People forget that all young players especially in our [American] culture have never played this much soccer in their lives. This is every day, 10 months a year; so there is an adjustment period,” said Sarachan. “But all the young guys, Jack, Jose, Gyasi, know where the bar is and coming along next year, they’ll be that much further along. Otherwise, if they regress or stay where they are then the next guy will come up.”
Adam Serrano is the LA Galaxy Insider. Read his blog at LAGalaxy.com/insider and contact him at LAGalaxyInsider@Gmail.com