HARRISON, NJ – America got its first look at Gedion Zelalem Saturday night. The 17-year-old midfielder left Maryland to sign with Arsenal of the English Premier League a year ago and to date, the central midfielder has made just one appearance for the Gunners. But he is considered a real talent, and he has fans of the USA salivating.
Although Zelalem was born in Berlin to Ethiopian parents and has represented Germany on several youth national team levels, the family moved to the United States in 2006, where he remained until he signed with Arsenal in 2013. Zelalem’s father, a green card holder, applied for UA citizenship in May, which would make his son eligible as well - a move seemingly designed to give Gedion options, if it isn’t an outright commitment.
Following a fairly anonymous half of work in Arsenal’s 1-0 friendly loss to the New York Red Bulls, the teenager was coy on the subject. "At the moment, I’m just trying to break into the first team at Arsenal," he said.
He admitted to having talked to US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, without any promises being exchanged. "We spoke on the phone a few times," said Zelalem. "They’re both great countries," added the midfielder. "The US is on the rise and Germany is already a great country. So whichever country I choose will be a good choice."
In his short time with Arsenal’s senior team, which he represented for just 19 minutes as a substitute in the FA Cup last year, Zelalem has made an impression.
"He’s a great kid and that’s the main thing, he’s willing to learn, willing to listen," said fellow central midfielder and England international Jack Wilshere. "He’s respectful, he looks up to [manager] Arsene [Wenger], he asks questions about what we think he should be doing. The main thing as well is his abilities - that’s the key thing with him. He’s got so much ability he can be what he wants. Maybe he needs to be a little stronger, but his ability will take him through."
Like so many, Wilshere cautioned against expecting too much too soon. There have been plenty of young Americans prematurely picked out for greatness who never delivered, after all.
"He’s still really young, so you have to give him a chance," said Wilshere. "Give him the chance to develop physically and then, you know, he’s going to be training with players of high quality every week, so he’s only going to improve.
"You can tell he’s one of those kids who enjoys playing football and he just wants to get out there and do his thing," Wilshere added. "He played on the right wing today and it’s not his strongest position. But he did his job."
If he keeps doing the job, he should get a chance at Arsenal — which would surely lead to chances with the United States national team. Should Zelalem want them, that is, rather than pursue careers with Germany or Ethiopia. If he does, he and several other strong young prospects coming through the pipeline for the USA will give merit to all that budding excitement about the future.