[THIRTEEN FOR '13] One of the neat things about MLS's homegrown program is that it allows young players to begin their pro careers with their hometown teams.
Just ask Gyasi Zardes, who grew up dreaming of playing for the Los Angeles Galaxy down the road from his home in Hawthorne, Calif., and still has a David Beckham poster hanging in his room.
“I have to say that the Galaxy, I mean, it's the No. 1 club in my heart, as far as America,” said Zardes in a conference call with Galaxy media after signing with a homegrown contract with the club. “I'm thrilled to be part of the Galaxy. Now a new chapter in my life begins, and it's definitely going to be hard work."
Zardes, whose great-grandfather came to the United States from Brazil, grew up in Hawthorne, not far from the Galaxy's Home Depot Center, and played soccer like his older brothers Glenn Jr., Gabriel and Garcel did.
"I think I got the best from all of them," he told the Bakersfield Californian. "My oldest brother has an amazing foot. My second-oldest has great ball control and my other brother has an amazing shot."
But at Leuzinger High School, he attracted as much interest from college football programs for his ability as a place-kicker as he did from soccer programs. It wasn't until his senior year that he attracted a lot of soccer interest and he eventually chose CSU Bakersfield over several Los Angeles schools because he was afraid he'd get sidetracked if he remained at home.
Few aspiring pros hold down a job on the side while playing college soccer, but Gyasi (Swahili for "Wonderful Child" ) worked part-time at a Jamba Juice while attending CSU Bakersfield, where he spent four years.
Zardes redshirted in 2009 and scored 36 goals the last three seasons. He was named the MPSF Player of the Year the last two seasons and helped put the Roadrunners Division I program on the national college map.
Zardes almost signed after his sophomore season with the Roadrunners but he wanted to get closer to finishing his degree in physical education and kinesiology. He also attracted interest from several German clubs and trained last summer at Liverpool.
The 21-year-old Zardes, who played two seasons with the Galaxy's U-18 team and two seasons for its U-20 team in the USL Super 20 League, is considered the top American forward coming out of college this year.
He is the Galaxy's oldest homegrown signing -- the previous four homegrown players all were in high school or had just finished high school when they signed -- and thinks he's ready to help the Galaxy.
"I definitely think that my speed with the ball and without the ball is a powerful factor," he said. "I also think that my defensive work rate will also be a key factor. To be honest, every single player can work on every aspect of their game and I definitely don't think that I have a particular weakness, but I definitely think that I can work on everything, but I also feel that I have a few attributes that will help me adapt to MLS quickly."
His goal: help the Galaxy in its quest for a three-peat.
“Just playing alongside Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan is going to be a thrill," he said, "and the legacy the Galaxy has, especially coming off two-time, back-to-back championships – it's going to be great to finally put in the work and try to bring back a third championship this year.”