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MLS Comeback Player of Year Gyasi Zardes says change contributed to breakthrough season

Aug 11, 2018; Columbus, OH, USA; Columbus Crew SC forward Gyasi Zardes (11) is the 2018 MLS Comeback Player of the Year. (Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports)

When Galaxy President Chris Klein traded Gyasi Zardes to Columbus last winter, he did so with a heavy heart — and a prediction.

“It would surprise me not at all if he had a great year,” he said.

Klein might have been surprised by how great, though, with Zardes scoring a career-high 19 goals, most by an American-born player since 2013, to lead the Crew to the MLS Eastern Conference playoff semifinals. On Wednesday that performance also won Zardes the league’s Comeback Player of the Year award, a prize Klein claimed twice during his playing career.

And Zardes, who grew up in the shadow of the StubHub Center then spent the five first seasons of his professional career there, credited a change of scenery for this breakout season.

“Sometimes players need change and sometimes a different environment can bring out different abilities,” he said. “It was just a great time for me to just try something new and kind of get out of my comfort zone.

“In life you’re constantly growing. Just being here in Columbus is really helping me grow as a player and as a human being.”

A change of scenery was only part of it though. After battling injuries in his last two seasons with the Galaxy, Zardes made a career-high 33 starts for the Crew. He also benefited from coach Gregg Berhalter’s lone-striker formation, which made him the focus of the Crew’s attack.

With the Galaxy he frequently played as a midfielder before finishing his time there as a right back.

“I want to knock on something because I don’t want to jinx it,” said Zardes, 27. “That’s extremely important as a professional athlete to not miss games and to not missing training sessions. Because each and every day players are getting better.”

Before the trade, the Galaxy admitted Zardes had become lost in Southern California. In his second season as a starter, he had 16 goals and became the first Homegrown Player in league history to score in an MLS Cup final. But with the Galaxy moving him from forward to a wing to the midfield and eventually to the back line, he scored just 12 more goals over the next three seasons combined.

But he never quit. And that, combined with work in the community that included an internship with the Hawthorne Police Department and the refurbishing of abandoned tennis courts into futsal courts, made him one of the Galaxy’s most popular players.

“He’s contributed much to this team, our community, to our city. The character of Gyasi is almost second to none,” Klein said at the time of the trade. “To lose someone like that, it’s tough.”

That loss has been Columbus’ gain though, with Zardes’ hat trick in the final regular-season game lifting the Crew into the playoffs. His score in the first leg of the conference semifinals with the New York Red Bulls has the team leading the playoff heading into Sunday’s second game.

No matter how the season ends, though, Zardes already has some hardware by which to remember it.

“This Comeback Player of the Year award, it’s an important award,” he said. “Last year I struggled. I couldn’t find the backof the net. But this year just to be able to score, to be able to play on a daily basis, that’s huge.

“My family, my friends, the training staff here in Columbus, the coaching staff, my teammates, this is our award.”

LAFC loses coach

The Los Angeles Football Club suffered its first loss of the offseason Wednesday when Marc dos Santos, Bob Bradley’s top assistant, accepted a three-year contract to become manager of the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Dos Santos, a Montreal native, guided the San Francisco Deltas to the 2017 NASL championship and has also managed lower-division teams in Kansas City, Ottawa and Montreal. He replaces interim coach Craig Dalrymple in Vancouver.

Galaxy search quickens

The Galaxy declined to confirm or deny a report they have “serious interest” in making Dennis te Kloese their director of soccer operations. Te Kloese, head of Mexico’s national team programs, previously worked as scouting director for Chivas de Guadalajara and former MLS team Chivas USA.

On Tuesday the Galaxy fired vice president of soccer operations Pete Vagenas in what Klein said was the first step in a front-office makoever. The Galaxy’s interest in Te Kloese, a former Dutch youth international, was first reported by Sam Stejskal on the MLS website.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com | Twitter: @kbaxter11

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