October 4, 2012 – The name Gyasi is defined in an online site about the meaning and origin of people’s first names as, “One who is wonderful.”
That description is fitting for Cal State Bakersfield striker Gyasi Zardes. He’s turned out to be one wonderful recruit for coach Simon Tobin’s program, helping put the school on the Division 1 soccer map.
In Zardes’ first two years on the pitch for the Roadrunners, they’ve won 23 matches, outscored opponents 66-36, upset national power UCSB, played in back-to-back Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament finals and earned a NCAA Tournament bid.
Bakersfield is off to a 4-1-4 start this season — including a shutout at 24th-ranked UC Riverside — and on the verge of cracking the top 25 in the national polls. They’re No. 4 in the Far West Region.
Zardes is a dynamo of a striker on a team that attacks relentlessly. He possesses all the qualities that will serve him well at the next level: great pace on and off the ball; size, he’s 6-2; tenacity, passion, shoots equally well with both feet, possesses good jumping ability and vision, has a strong work ethic, and is a good teammate.
Bakersfield fans should feel thankful Zardes didn’t jump to the next level after a monster sophomore season in 2011. He rocked the college soccer world by scoring 18 goals, ranking him fourth in the country. He was honored as the MPSF Most Valuable Player and was named to three All-American teams.
This year, he became the first Cal State Bakersfield player to be selected to the list of semifinalists for 2012 Hermann Trophy, the award for national player of the year.
Coach Tobin gives Gyasi’s father a huge assist in encouraging his star player to stay in school for one more season and get his degree. He is a senior academically and will graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
“His dad is quite a strong figure (in his life) and his dad wants him to finish his education, because he was only a year away from completing,” said Tobin of Gyasi’s father, Glenn Zardes.
“It was on my mind, but my father stressed education,” said Zardes about the idea of going pro after his breakout season in 2011.
Tobin said he had conversations with L.A. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena and assistant Chris Klein about the player’s future, and he explained to Zardes that six more months playing in college wouldn’t be a huge detriment to his draft status.
“It was a close call, let’s be honest, ” Tobin admitted. “We thought he could have the best of both worlds with a degree.”
Zardes’ decision brought a huge sigh of relief in the Bakersfield community.
He is immensely popular on campus and in the community. He’s an exciting player to watch on the pitch and very approachable off it.
“I don’t think he can carry himself any better,” Tobin said. “I’ve told many he’s probably the first player on my team that he’s not just friends with everyone on the team but everyone on campus he talks to. I think that’s one of the reasons he stayed in college. He loves college life. He’s a friend of everyone.” defenders and goalkeepers.
“I’m a very talkative person,” said Zardes, who likes to use the expression, “Ohhh yaaaay.”
So, how did a player of Zardes’ talent find his way to little Cal State Bakersfield?
He was playing for the Galaxy Under 20 academy team and Tobin’s assistant, Keith Costigan, was on the coaching staff and developed a good relationship with the player.
“I was very familiar with the coaches, Keith and Simon.” Zardes said. “Their style of play was very different from other college teams. They like to play the ball on the ground and at the feet as opposed to kick ball.”
It also helped that the Bakersfield coaching staff envisioned Zardes playing striker for them.
He was playing center back for the Galaxy team.
“You still have to do your research on that,” Tobin told a reporter while laughing. “We knew he’d be a great forward for us and he’s proved to be.”
Zardes said he never questioned the Galaxy’s decision to play him as a defender.
“I wasn’t sure why I was playing that position, but I’m a team player and I stuck with it.”
The first blip on the college radar for Zardes came in a match against UCSB during his freshman year in 2010. He scored the game-winning goal in the second overtime, beating two defenders to head a long free kick to his feet and then shooting quickly with his right foot to beat the goalkeeper.
“That’s when a lot of other coaches scouting the game realized how much of a threat I was,” Zardes said.
He scored five goals and had seven assists that first season before blowing up for 18 goals and two assists in his sophomore year.
He has four goals and five assists in the early part of this season, but Tobin said those stats are misleading.
“The first three games he played with an injury and two games he missed. Only now he’s getting back to match fitness. He’s just about there right now,” said the coach. “As time goes, Gyasi and the full team will be 100 percent for the conference season.”
Not surprising, Zardes is getting a lot more attention from defenses this season.
He’s ready for it.
“Last year a lot of teams didn’t know about me, and I was such a threat,” he said. “This year, a lot of teams have been putting multiple players on me, and I’ve definitely been trying to find my teammates. I have teammates who are just as skilled as me, and (opponents) don’t know that.”
Said Tobin: “There’s a maturity to his game; that’s one of the things that comes with getting older and playing more. The other part is he’s not a secret this year. He’s getting extra attention and we have some other quality players out there, and he’s able to dish it out and be a supplier as well as a getter of goals.”
Tobin’s system is a perfect fit for the way Zardes likes to play.
“Ohhh yaaay. When we attack we have so many options going forward,” he said.
“We try to play the right way here,” Tobin said. “We’re an exciting team to watch … part of that is Gyasi.
“But, hopefully, with an Englishman and an Irishman coaching we still try to play the beautiful game, which is a bit unusual,” he added with a laugh. “But, because of the players we have, we’re definitely a passing team.”
Zardes is African-American (the origin of his first name is Ghanaian) with a little Brazilian mixed in from his great grandfather. It’s no surprise then when he says his favorite professional players are Brazilians Neymar and Robinho.
While he looks forward to a future as a pro soccer player, Zardes has some goals he wants to achieve at Bakersfield this season.
“I have a personal goal to be effective each and every game. I really don’t look at goals per game because that would just throw me off if I’m not scoring every game and I’d be frustrated. I just think of making a huge impact on my team and making sure we get the win.
“I also want to make sure we make the postseason and make the NCAA Tournament again and really win it this year. That’s a team goal for myself, win the whole thing this year.”
Zardes said it’s been exciting being part of a rising Division 1 program at Cal State Bakersfield. The Roadrunners are joining the Pac-12 Conference next year.
“I knew over the years that we were going to be one of the top faces on the West Coast,” he said. “I just really obeyed my coaches, stayed level headed and just worked hard. I have to give thanks to them. Others may think I put Bakersfield on the map, but I really have to thank them because without them we wouldn’t be playing the style of football we are at the moment.”
Barry Punzal is a contributing writer for College Soccer News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org