The last time the Columbus Crew faced Atlanta United, the major storyline was how Josef Martínez would look in his first start since May 29. The answer was he failed to take a shot on target, and the Crew won, 1-0.

Two weeks later, the focus can shift to a forward on the Black & Gold: Gyasi Zardes.

Fresh off winning the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup with the United States Men’s National Team, Zardes could make his first start for the Crew since July 3 against the New England Revolution. Then, No. 11 scored the first goal for the club at Field, and his determination to chase down a loose ball led to the equalizing goal – and own goal – in the 2-2 draw.

But Zardes’ return from the national team isn’t just the club’s starting striker returning, it’s also the highest-scoring American in MLS since 2018 returning to league play at a time when Columbus needs to score more while also solidifying its backline.

Since joining the Crew prior to the 2018 season, Zardes has 48 goals in regular-season action, putting him ahead of Chris Wondolowski's 34 goals. Additionally, 46 of Zardes's goals have been scored from inside the 18-yard box, with the forward also leading all American players in that category.

Through his 11 Crew appearances so far this season, Zardes has registered four goals from 10 shots on target. However, his goals tally is misleading when considering how his runs at goal lead to goals scored by other players.

As mentioned earlier, he forced the Revolution into an own goal in the first game at Field and also directly led to D.C. United two own goals in the Crew’s 3-1 win against D.C. United – the first league win this season.

Currently logging a 0.45 goals per game average, Zardes ranks 11th in the league in the category, but that number will likely increase now that the Crew’s frontline has never been healthier.

Erik Hurtado started against D.C. United on Wednesday, but Bradley Wright-Phillips and Miguel Berry have also started in place of Zardes, who missed the last month to participate in the Gold Cup. But now Kevin Molino has registered a Crew goal, and Derrick Etienne Jr. and Luiz Díaz are also settling in from the Gold Cup.

Throughout this season, head coach Caleb Porter has frequently picked starting lineups with depleted rosters. Now at the halfway point of the season, that’s beginning to change.

Porter only played Zardes 34 minutes last match to allow him to recover from the forward playing 120 minutes against Mexico. Porter said Zardes ran a total of 10 miles – a remarkable stat that speaks to the striker’s movement in and out of possession.

With that in mind, and with Zardes’ league-best scoring rate for Americans in MLS, it’s hard to look ahead without thinking No. 11 will play a big piece in the club’s attacking success.

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