It was midway through the first half of Sunday’s World Cup qualifier between the U.S. and Canadian men’s national teams when Gyasi Zardes charged forward toward goal.
Canada had taken a 1-0 lead not long beforehand. An American equalizer would settle all of their nerves, maybe even quell the rising panic that a qualification disaster was happening to them again. This could’ve been Zardes’ moment, the play that would make him a hero whose goal put the team’s trajectory back on course for Qatar 2022.
That moment vaporized in a split-second; a Canadian defender blocked his path, and when Zardes tried to dribble around him, he clumsily knocked the ball out of bounds.
If you were half-watching the game while also browsing Twitter on your laptop or phone, a cacophony of criticism swiftly, predictably emerged.
Zardes has been a scapegoat for a certain type of USMNT fan for a while now. He is not alone in receiving online criticism, of course. There was plenty of that to go around in the aftermath of the U.S.’s 2-0 loss: predominantly at coach Gregg Berhalter and the federation that put him in place, but even of star players like Christian Pulisic.
Longtime sports fans, though, know the difference between one-off criticism of people with a degree of stardom or power and the lightning rods they love to hate on. Zardes falls in the latter camp. Maybe it’s because he plays in Major League Soccer, maybe it is because he does not have the deftest touch, maybe it’s because he’s become a personification for the team’s inability to develop a reliable center forward; the reason is almost immaterial.
It is curious, at a time when mental health is being talked about in public forums more than ever, that the vitriol aimed at athletes seems more vicious (and more targeted) than ever.