As Gyasi Zardes sifts through his soccer memories, a common theme emerges. He doesn't do sophomore slumps. Instead, he engages in sophomore surges.
Any time Zardes has found himself with a new team, the first year sees him go through long periods of struggle. Yet without fail, that spell is followed up by immense improvement. As Zardes sits in a San Jose, California, hotel lobby, he reveals this pattern goes back to his earliest days in the sport.
"My mom used to say I was a crybaby," he says. "In AYSO [American Youth Soccer Organization], I used to score own goals. But she said the next year I played, I scored about 52 goals. That's something I always remember. The first year was difficult, and the next year I just turned it on."
The same thing happened in high school. His freshman year he didn't see the field much. The next year he was playing the entire game. His redshirt freshman year at Cal State Bakersfield, he scored just five goals in 19 games. The next year he hit for 18 in 20 matches.
"I always feel like it's the same ordeal," he says. "When I jump into new things, I start off, get a feel for it, and then the next year it always happens to turn out good."
Good doesn't even begin to describe the progress Zardes has made this year with the Los Angeles Galaxy. In 2013, Zardes was called upon to fill the void left when Mike Magee was traded to Chicago. His power, speed and ability to get into good positions were obvious. The end product proved less so. He managed to take 78 shots, but just 29.5 percent of those were on target. He scored just four goals, and his shot conversion rate -- the ratio of goals scored to shots on target -- was just 17.1 percent.
Zardes' numbers this year compared to a year ago have been staggering. During the regular season he tallied 16 times from four fewer shots and put 39.2 percent of his shots on frame. His conversion rate is a healthy 55.1 percent.
Teasing apart what's different between his first and second seasons reveals several factors, not the least of which is the simple accumulation of experience. L.A. manager Bruce Arena notes that this process was slowed when Zardes sustained a broken foot early in his rookie season. But by the end of the campaign the young attacker began to show signs that he was on his way. Arena recalled the young forward's performance late last year against Chivas USA, against whom he had a goal and two assists, as proof the young forward could be impactful at the professional level.
"I just think the continuity of training, being in a professional environment, getting games, all contributed to the progression Zardes has had," Arena said. "His training routine needed to be a little bit better last year to help move him along. It's been a little bit better this year."
That improvement in training has revealed itself in two areas: Zardes' movement off the ball and his composure in front of goal. Teammate Robbie Keane has been the primary inspiration in terms of when and how to get into good goal-scoring positions.
"Keane's movement is so good that he tricks me. I'm dead serious," Zardes said. "One minute, I'll look up and see him. Then, I'll look down, and the next moment, he's gone. Just knowing him and reading him, that's the trickiest thing."
Teammate Landon Donovan adds, "It's taken [Zardes] a while to realize 'I should make this run and not that run. If I make this run, I'm going to score. If I make that run, I'm not going to score.' Once that started clicking in his head, it almost looked like it became easy for him. That was the final piece to that puzzle."
Not quite. There was the finishing piece as well, and Zardes indicated he took some lessons from Donovan to improve this aspect of his game.
"A cross is coming in, I'd try to smack on goal with all my power," he said. "As I watched Landon, all he'd do is redirect the ball. The pace and the speed are already coming from the cross."
It's a tribute to the hard work Zardes has put in that he's taken various lessons to heart and become a performer the Galaxy can count on, yet his unique second-season syndrome remains. Granted, success is rarely instantaneous, but the extent to which history keeps repeating itself is intriguing nonetheless.
"Gyasi has always been a player that has to feel comfortable," said Fox television analyst Keith Costigan, who coached Zardes when the two were part of the Galaxy's academy, as well as at Cal State Bakersfield, at which he worked as an assistant. "I definitely think that this year the comfort level is there for Gyasi. I thought he snatched at chances a little bit last year; he was eager to prove himself."
He always has been. Zardes grew up in Hawthorne, California, just up the 405 freeway from StubHub Center, where he now plays. Zardes insists he loved growing up there, but it's also a place that has its rough edges and the wrong kind of temptations.
Costigan recalls the first time he visited Zardes' home.
"I asked Gyasi what kind of neighborhood it was. He said, 'Ah, it's real good, Coach. They wouldn't shoot you unless they had a reason.' I said to Gyasi, 'Is that how you define a good neighborhood? How about a neighborhood where they don't shoot you at all?' He just laughed."
Yet Zardes benefited from four pillars in his life: family, faith, soccer and his own humility. Zardes grew up with three brothers and a sister, and his parents, Glenn and Linda, instilled in him a down-to-earth sensibility.
"It was always a family thing," Glenn said. "Whatever we did, it was as a family."
With just seven years separating the oldest child, Glenn Jr., from Gyasi's younger sister, Zakyia, there was also never a shortage of things to do.
"We had each other to play with but also to take care of and protect each other," Gyasi's older brother, Garcel, added. "In Hawthorne, you could find all kinds of things to be involved with that aren't good for you. That opportunity was there, but our parents kept us busy in sports. We played all year round up until high school, so it was hard to run with the crowd that was causing trouble."
Religion was also a part of the Zardes household, but it wasn't until Gyasi's high school years that his faith took on a larger role in his life, tagging along with Garcel to bible study classes. His beliefs haven't waned through college and his move into the professional ranks.
"I'm a believer in Jesus Christ, and I try to keep him at the center of my life," Gyasi said. "Be humble and just serve a purpose with my life."
Glenn Sr. was heavily involved in the sports activities of his children, although it took some convincing from Garcel to get his children involved in soccer. But once the decision was made, the family immersed itself in the sport. Garcel recalled how they would check out books from the Inglewood library about the game's rules and techniques. Their family also watched countless videos of the game's greats, with Ronaldinho proving to be Gyasi's primary source of inspiration.
"We would watch videotapes every day and practice moves in the living room," Garcel said.
There was also a concrete courtyard at the back of the apartment complex at which the family lived. It was here that kids from around the neighborhood would congregate. The playing area was long and narrow but proved to be a perfect setting for Gyasi to hone his game.
"You could play it off the walls. Anything went," Gyasi said. "There was a fence that led to another apartment complex, except that it had barbed wire. If the ball went over or it got popped, you just had to get another one. But, man, it was the ultimate area to go play and have fun."
Those sessions usually involved Gyasi going up against his older brothers, with Glenn Jr. six years older than Gyasi, Gabriel five and Garcel three. They weren't about to let their youngest brother get the better of them, either.
"You know how siblings can be," Glenn Sr. said with a chuckle. "They really put Gyasi to the test. Even today they'll criticize him. They're his harshest critics. It's all good. It's only love. They competed against each other in everything."
And when there was no one around, Gyasi would simply go out and juggle or work on his weaker left foot, cementing his love affair with the ball.
That ability to self-motivate served Gyasi well when it came time to go to college. At that time, Zardes was already part of the Galaxy's academy but wasn't viewed as a can't-miss prospect. That honor fell to Tristan Bowen. As college beckoned, a knee injury saw Zardes fall off the radar of several programs. Then, after selecting Bakersfield, Zardes was forced to redshirt due to some substandard grades early in high school. For an entire year, Zardes wouldn't be allowed to play or train with his collegiate team.
"It was tough," Costigan recalled. "Gyasi would go out there and train every day by himself. I mean every single day. That year was one that could have easily gone to waste, but he did so much work by himself that he came back that redshirt freshman year and was ready to go. He's not a partier. He's not your typical college student. When other kids were hungover on Sunday morning, Gyasi was out there training."
Costigan and head coach Simon Tobin made sure to maximize Zardes' talent upon his return, with Costigan constantly demanding the young striker do more to sharpen his game.
"Costigan brought the best out of me, especially in the mental aspect of the game," Gyasi said. "Sometimes, I would take some plays off. Sometimes, things were easy for me at Bakersfield. Sometimes, I was more skilled than some of the other players, just faster than everybody. He kept me level-headed, made sure I didn't get arrogant."
Thirty-eight goals later, Zardes was ready to make the jump to MLS and reenact the two-year playbook he has used so often in the past. Now, he's faced with trying to replicate his form in the cauldron of the playoffs. The league is well aware of him now; a form book has started to emerge. The key now is to adapt and stay one step ahead of the league's defenders.
"It's being clever and savvy in the way you do things," Donovan said. "That's why a guy like Robbie Keane has scored everywhere he's gone, because he knows how to adapt, how to change. Gyasi is starting to learn that, and the faster he gets that last piece, the faster he's going to be a star."
But one who will remain grounded. Gyasi recently married his college sweetheart, Madison, and they have a young son, Gyan. Gyasi is also working toward finishing his degree in criminal justice at Cal State Dominguez Hills. He feels his religious beliefs help knit everything together.
Now, Zardes is eager to repay the faith of Arena and his teammates. He nearly got on the score sheet in the first leg of L.A.'s Western Conference semifinal series against Real Salt Lake, only to have a goal wiped out for a dubious offside call. The second leg will take place this Sunday. Zardes' goals remain the same.
"I want to get to the point where every shot is a goal," he said. "That would be amazing. I know no forward has done it, but if you watch Messi, the majority of his shots are goals. I want to get to the point where every shot I take is just lethal."
If he can approach that in the playoffs, he'll finish off his second season in style.