Gyasi Zardes interview: Move the crowd – Austin’s new number nine is on the cut
The scoring stature of new Austin FC signing Gyasi Zardes requires little introduction by now. Less common knowledge, perhaps, is that their acquisition of the two-time MLS champion means that they now also have a certified spin king waiting in the wings.
Gyasi Zardes’ switch to the Texan capital was announced back in December, as the recent Colorado Rapids forward joined Austin FC on a three-year deal (with the option of a further year). It adds a player to the frontline who has twice been to the summit, with MLS Cup triumphs at both LA Galaxy (2014) and Columbus Crew (2020).
He comes to a vibrant corner of the league, to a club with cascading energy and colour, and a team that shot up the standings in their second MLS season. In the ‘Live Music Capital of the World,’ The Verde & Black’s new number nine also has extra reason to feel right at home.
“Yeah, I love music, man,” says the 64-cap U.S. international, “It’s crazy, I used to DJ in college (at Cal State Bakersfield), so a hobby of mine is DJing.”
“I still do it to this day; I’m getting my son into it. It started in college, so my college roommate, he was the DJ, and we used to DJ college parties.
“I would just stand with him and be hanging out, and one party, he was just like, ‘Hey, man, I’ma go over there…you wanna DJ and get into it?’ I was like, ‘Alright, man, just show me what to do!’”
A player who has struck double figures in six seasons across his career, there is something similarly addictive about the rush that comes from stepping into the shoes of a turntablist for the night.
“Over a period of time, my love for it just grew, being able to dictate the atmosphere in a room; it’s one of the best feelings. Next thing you know, that carried over into me DJing with my kids.
“I was DJing back when I was in Columbus at graduation parties, because when I was off, people were graduating. They’d say, ‘Hey, can we use your speaker one night?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, go ahead!’
“Then my wife would say, ‘He’ll DJ the party!’ and I’m like, ‘What?!’ I’d end up DJing graduation parties for close family friends in Columbus.
“It’s just a hobby; I’m not doing it professionally.”
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A position as prestigious and pressurised as resident DJ in the locker room is, admittedly, a different matter. Reunited at Austin with defender and one-time Columbus Crew counterpart Héctor Jiménez, Gyasi has been happy to take a background role in the sound stakes since his arrival.
“DP (Daniel Pereira), he’s usually connected to the Bluetooth in the locker room. If not, it’s Héctor or some of the other guys; I’ve noticed DP and Héctor will get on the tunes right away.
“Maxi (Urruti), he has his speaker out here, so those guys are usually the ones blasting the music.”
Pre-season has so far taken them to Florida – to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, before Orlando, and a game with FC Cincinnati in Clearwater – and back. As well as stepping up preparation for the season’s February 25th curtain-raiser with St. Louis CITY, the team wasted no time in putting newcomers under the spotlight.
“I had to sing; I knew I was going to have to. My go-to song whenever I have to sing in front of a crowd is always Bob Marley.
“I went with (starts singing) ‘I wanna love you…and treat you right’ (Is This Love?). Everybody started singing, you know, because everybody loves Bob, and it’s chill!
“With the Crew, I did another Bob Marley one, which was ‘Three Little Birds’…(sings) ’on my doorstep,’ but with Colorado, I didn’t have to do one. They make only the younger guys do it, and also, I got traded (from Columbus) after they started the season, so I kind of got lucky there!”
Music has been firmly fed into the culture at his new club. A bouncing beat is a central feature of an ATX game day, from the La Murga de Austin supporters’ section band, to the fervent backing from fellow fan groups like Los Verdes and Austin Anthem, to name but two.
Through it all, the VERDE faithful was always with us. It’s just the beginning of our legend. 🌳 pic.twitter.com/wMxkLST30j
— Austin FC (@AustinFC) October 30, 2022
In his first interview with the club after signing, live music was among the factors Gyasi cited when highlighting what excited him about his new city. Aside from such legendary tales as Brazil legend Romário doing a deal with Barcelona boss Johan Cruyff to return home mid-season for the Rio Carnival, a player’s schedule mostly means missing out on multi-day events, which Gyasi knows all about.
“Yeah, it sucks because whenever there are festivals, we have games, especially Palm Springs where there’s Coachella or other events close by. Back when I played with Galaxy, we used to get a bunch of free tickets; if we didn’t have an away game, sometimes they’d have Calibash, or some festivals at the StubHub Center (now Dignity Health Sports Park), and we’d get like a suite for the team.
“So, we’d see, I think one year it was Justin Bieber, and a bunch of artists.”
Back in ATX, his new team have had one sell-out date after another, currently enjoying an MLS-record streak of 36 at their Q2 Stadium home. How about an even hotter ticket – arguably, anyway – than an Austin FC game?
Gyasi is given his choice of any artist from all-time, to see perform in their prime.
“I was thinking Michael Jackson, but then everyone wants to say him. I heard Prince was good, but I’ll have to say Bob Marley.
“I listen to a lot of reggae, so it’d be dope to see an acoustic concert of Bob Marley and his songs, at an intimate setting.”
At 31, Gyasi is currently three regular-season goals away from joining MLS’ 100 club, having also scored five in play-off games across his career. Music helps set the different pieces to his professional routine in motion, just as much as it colourises his days off the field.
“I love all types of music. When it comes to a chill day, I usually put on reggae, or a chill playlist, and when I’m hanging out with the kids and it’s more up-tempo, I’ll usually do like a pop genre.
“If I’m by myself or training, sometimes I’ll do dance music, whether it’s older people like Calvin Harris, Swedish House Mafia, or current guys. Afternoons, before I pick up the kids, that’s usually when I’ll listen to alternative music or indie music.
“It just varies, man. I feel like music definitely portrays your feelings, the way you’re feeling at that moment.
“While I’m working out in the gym, like serious or intense moments, I usually play hip-hop/rap. Sometimes I have a gameday playlist, but at the same time, whatever new artists or new songs I’ve listened to that week that have inspired me in some type of way, I like to listen to that before the game.
“It doesn’t have to be a fast-paced song, it’s more about sometimes the lyrics that connects with me; ‘Okay, man, that guy is saying that – I gotta relate it to me on the field.’”
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Somewhere in Hawthorne, California, with the noughties having kicked into gear, Gyasi’s father had just bought a new Dell home computer. A trip to Best Buy yielded a 50-stack of blank CDs, which one future MLS All-Star put to full use by turning compilation cut creator – ‘NOW That’s What I Call a Gyasi Jam!’
After all, what says ‘grew up in the 90s and 2000s’ better than a CD wallet to frustratingly flip through in the car?
“Even back then, I would go from Blink-182 and Simple Plan, to Nas, 2Pac, Biggie. I went through my stages of hip-hop and rock, and then next thing you know, dance and vocal trance came out of nowhere – ‘oh, what’s this?’
“From that, you have drum and bass. I heard it on one of my soccer video games, started listening to some drum and bass, and some garage music.
“I was telling my best friend, ‘You gotta go to Best Buy to get these blank CDs!’ I had the whole CD case and everything, it was incredible.”
While his own DJing credentials are more than respectable, it is a job he has never claimed in the locker room at previous clubs. He offers a snapshot of which players would man the figurative wheels of steel at a couple of those teams.
“In LA, I think A.J. (DeLaGarza) used to have it; it’s really always whoever wants to leave their phone out there and connect to the speakers. I think in Columbus, the last year it was Derrick Etienne, he always had the music going.
“Evan Bush (also at Columbus Crew), he had the weights room going with country, which is nice!”
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Top scorer for Columbus (with 15 overall) as they won MLS Cup in 2020, Gyasi had also made a sizeable impact for LA Galaxy on their way to glory in 2014. In front of a home crowd for MLS Cup, the 23-year-old capped his breakout season (scoring 19 in all competitions) with the opening goal against New England Revolution.
Taking down Stefan Ishizaki’s deflected cross in the box, time seemed to wait as he took three extra touches while fending off pressure from the Revs defenders, then firing into the far corner from a tight angle. After an equaliser from Chris Tierney, the Galaxy’s extra-time winner would come via their only player to outscore Gyasi that year, Republic of Ireland star Robbie Keane.
The obvious temptation would be to ask what the legendary former frontman taught him about attacking play. Given, though, that his late father was an accomplished singer and guitarist in pubs back in Ireland, with Robbie himself a karaoke enthusiast, did Gyasi see much of that music love in action while in LA?
“When we were in the locker room, not really, but when we’d go out, he showed us a good time. We had a pre-season in Ireland once, and it was at a local pub, where they had a stage and a mic and they’d all sing some Irish songs.
“Some players are on stage singing, but I’m trying to remember if it was specifically him!”
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One Columbus Crew teammate’s initiation showing, meanwhile, had Gyasi feeling like an A&R who just accidentally discovered the next Grammy winner singing to themselves while working in a clothing store.
“Wil Trapp, he sung right after me, for my national-team initiation. This guy, I don’t know if you ever heard his voice, but this guy’s a singer.
“He did that song ‘No Diggity’ (BLACKstreet), ‘I like the way you work it…,’ but he put his little twist on it, and it was pretty dope. I was like, ‘maaaan…he’s an actual singer!’”
Part of the Concacaf Gold Cup-winning U.S. teams in 2017 and 2021, Gyasi came up with the decisive semi-final goal against Qatar in the latter of those tournaments – at the stadium he now calls home, incidentally. The move to Austin brings the obvious draw of linking up with last season’s league MVP runner-up Sebastián Driussi.
The club’s very first All-Star, the creative cut and thrust served up by the Argentine attacking jewel and the likes of Diego Fagúndez (16 assists in 2022) would be tantalising to any striker. Then there is the added bonus of a head coach he has enjoyed success with in the past.
Josh Wolff was Columbus Crew assistant in Gyasi’s career-best, 20-goal season of 2018, and has publicly laid out his expectation for him to notch 15-20 goals in 2023. Former U.S. forward Wolff was a Kansas City Wizards teammate of Nashville’s Teal Bunbury, who told this site last October:
“When I got into the league, Josh Wolff was one of my first roommates actually. That was his later years but he was there to tell me, ‘You’re not always going to have your speed but what you can have is the runs you make and how you make them. That’s something that won’t go away if you perfect that.’”
The sentiment ties in neatly with how Gyasi has been working to refine his game in recent times.
“A key thing I’ve been saying is trying to work smarter, because there’s been a lot of times where in the past, I was full of energy and I would make a lot of pointless runs, and now I’m trying to think and conserve energy, where my runs now have a purpose. Now, when I get the ball, I have enough energy to do a full-out sprint for 80 yards if I have to, as opposed to running, running, running when I was a rookie or my sophomore season.”
ATX were cooking up a storm in their own sophomore year. After an inaugural season that saw them finish 24th overall, The Verde & Black came 2nd in the Western Conference in 2022, later bowing out in the conference final to eventual MLS Cup winners LAFC.
The year had seen noticeable added sharpness in delivering their possession game, with increased variation also coming into the mix. Gyasi pinpoints the playing style as ‘the most appealing thing’ about joining, also highlighting the ‘open arms’ he has been welcomed with, in a team he describes as devoid of egos.
The kids having to move school, with partners also uprooting their life, is often the forgotten aspect to a player changing clubs. Together with wife Madison, their two sons and two daughters, Gyasi has been bowled over by the beginning of their Texas adventure.
“We live kind of northwest of Austin, we live in the Cedar Park area, and man, we love it. So far, our kids have friends, they’re in school, and that was the biggest thing.
“Me and my wife, we can adapt and live anywhere, but the biggest question was ‘how will our kids get on in Austin?’ So far, it’s amazing.
“Everybody’s so friendly, you have kids outside playing until it gets dark, playing in neighbours’ back yards, trampoline and play sets. As long as my kids are fine, and my wife is fine, I’m good, man.”
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One extraordinary perk of his career to date was featuring as a character in video game FIFA 18’s ‘The Journey’ story mode. The role included having an acting coach on hand as Gyasi performed his interactions with main protagonist Alex Hunter (voiced by Adetomiwa Edun), the English player who joins LA Galaxy.
What if Gyasi was the one to play the lead in a movie about his own life? Hiding away in the small print, however, is that one of the supporting characters – any teammate from his career – must be played by Austin FC co-owner Matthew McConaughey.
“Walker Zimmerman; I think he’d be a funny guy to play. I would say he’s the actor, singer, you name it, he can do it.
“The impersonator, good at karaoke, all the above – (after a quick prompt from Austin’s media and communications manager Cameron Koubek) and he has the hair! The looks and the hair.”
Country artist Bailey Zimmerman (no relation) sings of midnight in Austin (‘and damn, I’m exhausted’) in ‘Rock and a Hard Place,’ about a struggling relationship about to end. It can be how it feels sometimes in a playing career, just with a little less flannel-shirted melody.
Reflecting on what is now a full decade in the league, Gyasi shares his thoughts on how much he has been able to feel truly valued, wanted and confident during his time as a pro.
“I’ll say there’s only been two years out of my 11-year stint where I was uncertain of the coach’s feelings towards me, but other than that, it’s been amazing. The previous coaches that I’ve played for, they understand me, they know what I’m good at, and they have faith and confidence in me.
“When a coach has confidence in you, it makes you want to work 150 times more. I try to be the best all the time, but you understand sometimes your team is going to lose, sometimes you’re going to miss a goal in the game.
“You’re going to get a new opportunity, don’t get down on yourself, look at film and do the right thing next time, or go out on the field and train more so that when you have that opportunity, you can execute it in the game. Now, I have that type of perspective.
“Positive is the biggest thing, no ego, just keep working hard, and everything else will fall into place.”
A new season, and a new page of sorts in the MLS book, is nudging ever closer. The much-discussed Apple TV deal comes into play, while talk has now also turned to the prospect of a play-off format that would see a jump from 14 to 18 teams making the post-season.
Alongside their MLS and Open Cup participation, Austin’s 2023 includes competing in the Concacaf Champions League for the first time, as well as a revamped Leagues Cup now including all MLS and Liga MX teams. What better way to limber up for a marathon of a year than some entirely-hypothetical small-sided action?
As has been the way on this site for more than a decade now, Gyasi is transported (mostly willingly) to the 5-a-side arena, with four of his career teammates required to complete his line-up. Instead of an outright ‘best’ selection, the focus of this closing question is on dropping just a sample of those they could count on to bring enjoyment and entertainment.
“It’ll be me. It’ll be Héctor (Jiménez).
“Darlington Nagbe. Jaime Pinedo for the goalkeeper, and then I need one more field player?
“I would say…who else would it be…for the fun sake? I’ll say Lalas Abubakar.”
To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes
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