CARSON, Calif. –Gyasi Zardes’ most distinguishable trait isn’t his blonde Mohawk or even his flashy play on the soccer field. It’s his radiant smile, which stems from his easygoing demeanor born out of his upbringing in the self-proclaimed “City of Good Neighbors."
A native son of Hawthorne, California, Zardes’ charisma and industrious attitude is a byproduct of his upbringing that has served him well throughout his three-year professional career. An emerging member of the U.S. National Team and a vital part of the Bruce Arena’s Galaxy, Zardes’ work ethic and willingness to do whatever is asked of him has resulted in his meteoric rise.
And to hear Zardes tell the story, his success is owed completely to his ability to embody the spirit of his hometown.
“The characteristics of someone from Hawthorne are that they have a go-getter mentality. They’re not complacent; they want to achieve more. They always want to work harder,” Zardes told LA Galaxy Insider. “Living in Hawthorne, you can see that the characteristics of the families is that they work a couple of jobs and they work extremely hard to provide. I take all those characteristics under my belt, and I try to work extremely hard and give it my all on the field. Work ethic is the defining characteristic of the people of Hawthorne.”
Like many African-American families in Los Angeles, the Zardes’ family originated outside the state. Zardes’ father Glenn came from New Orleans while his mother Linda’s roots were in Michigan. The couple had four boys (Glenn Jr., Gabriel, Garcel, and Gyasi) and one daughter (Zakiya) and settled down in Southern California.
Raised in Hawthorne, Gyasi took to the sport of soccer naturally, even though it had been considered a “joke” by members of his family years prior.
“What drew us to Hawthorne was that everywhere you went, you had parks. In each section of the neighborhood, you had parks, and I thought that was unusual because you don’t see that in Los Angeles,” said Zardes’ father, Glenn. “That’s what drew us to Hawthorne. The people are much friendlier here. Parts of California can be impersonal, but Hawthorne is personable and very diverse.
“We came to parks to kick the ball around because it was for us; it was just a cultural difference. We grew up playing basketball, football, and baseball, soccer was just kickball to us until we moved to Hawthorne. It all came from there. We were at fields seven days a week.”
However, by the time Zardes was ready to see a soccer field, the Beautiful Game had become ingrained in the blood of the family with both of his older brothers playing the sport in leagues across the city and watching the Mexican and English leagues on TV on the weekends. After graduating from AYSO, Zardes began to test himself against older competition by participating in local pick-up games and rec leagues in nearby Lennox.
Zardes’ skill was so clear that his brothers were forced to search local parks for their younger brother to protect him from any angry opponents eager to prevent the talented kid from showing them up. As he grew, his abilities on the field blossomed, leading the youngster to a standout career at Leuzinger High School, the Galaxy Academy, and eventually Cal-State Bakersfield.
After scoring 33 goals in 37 games for his college side, Zardes went pro for the Galaxy ahead of the 2013 MLS season.
Following an uneven rookie campaign, the striker flourished in 2014 with 16 goals and two assists in the regular season. His breakout year culminated in a goal in the MLS Cup final and an MLS Cup championship. The following season, Zardes again produced on the field for the Galaxy, and locked down a spot on the U.S. National Team, tying Claudio Reyna's first-year U.S. appearance record.
“His success brings positivity. As a black kid from his neighborhood, and someone that has made it out, he comes back and is still involved. He does anything for the city. Any time that he does something, the city is behind him,” said Zardes’ brother Gabriel. “Everyone in the area knows that Gyasi used to live around the corner and now is on TV doing big things. It shows that you can do whatever you want to do. You can’t limit yourself just because of your surroundings.”
With African-American soccer stars still in short supply in the United States, Zardes has taken it upon himself to be a beacon for the community of Hawthorne and Los Angeles.
“Being an African-American kid who plays for the Galaxy and the U.S. National Team is a real source of pride for me. When other African-Americans are walking on the street or know who I am, they’re always very proud of what I’ve accomplished,” Zardes said. “They always say things like, “Congratulations, brother” because you don’t see many of us getting called up or having the same opportunities as others. Being an African-American is something that means a lot to me and not only that, but achieving a lot for the community.
“It’s a huge thing being a successful African-American kid from Hawthorne because a lot of people paint a negative light on African-Americans, and it is unfortunate. There a lot of African-Americans doing remarkable things in the world, but yet, we’re being portrayed as doing negative things, and that’s not true. I’m happy that other African-Americans are proud of me, and I’m fortunate that my city made a mural of me so that I could help the next generation see that whatever you put your mind to, you can succeed. And I can tell them not to believe that negative image that people try to portray.”
Zardes’ impact on the city was evident last month when the Galaxy Foundation and Chevrolet FC teamed up with Hawthorne to transform several underused tennis courts into futsal courts at Hawthorne’s Memorial Park. The facility was of significant importance to the Galaxy’s young striker who was repeatedly chased off the courts as a child by police, eventually prompting the city to place a “No Soccer” sign on a nearby fence.
When Zardes arrived at the park where soccer was famously “illegal,” he was greeted with a reception befitting the likes of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Hundreds of Hawthorne residents shouted the name of their local hero as viewed a new mural dedicated to his exploits and local aerospace company Space X, but the loudest cheers came when he brought down that fateful sign and declared the courts open for play.
“Soccer has essentially been illegal for the past 20 years because we have no fields and nowhere for kids to play,” Hawthorne Police Officer Chris Cognac, who worked closely with the Galaxy Foundation and Chevorlet on the park’s creation, said. “The next Gyasi might come from here. The next Galaxy or national team player might come from this court. He’s going to be one of the favorite sons of Hawthorne.
“He’s someone to watch and someone for this city to be proud. We had the Beach Boys forty years ago; we have Space X, and now we have Gyasi Zardes. That’s not bad company to be in.”
Zardes’ warm reception in Hawthorne even left his teammate Steven Gerrard—a man who knows a little something about being a hometown hero— in awe.
“Gyasi is a credit to himself and his family, and he’s put himself in a position where not is a top player, but he’s become a role model for his people and his community,” said Gerrard, who famously played most of his career for his hometown Liverpool FC. “The reaction that he gets is very similar to the reaction that I get back home. You have a responsibility to your own people. It’s touching to see him coming back to his roots and taking the time to make the place better.”
The 2016 campaign figures to be another significant one for the forward with Zardes expected to play a big part in the plans for the Galaxy and the U.S. National Team. Off the field, Zardes and his wife Maddie, and son Gyan are expecting another child who is due later this year.
As he prepares for yet another important year, the always-humble Zardes is determined to serve as a role model for all of those watching in his hometown.
“When I play, I know that there are a bunch of kids from Hawthorne and Los Angeles, who are watching me. I know that they’re watching me, and I try to be a positive light for them. A lot of kids look up to me especially the kids from Hawthorne,” Zardes said. “I want to be a positive image that they can look up to. I don’t want to be a negative image. I want them to have faith in themselves so that when they look at me, they know that they can achieve big things. That’s my main goal. I’m here to serve them. I want to help this neighborhood and help my city.”