Fans of the U.S. national team will be ecstatic that the MLS All-Star Game will provide a stage for their 19-year-old German-born Arsenal starlet Gedion Zelalem.
Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger announced this week that Zelalem would play at least part of the game Thursday at 4:30 p.m. featuring Wenger’s Gunners against MLS stars.
It wasn’t long ago that Zelalem’s decision to play for the United States shook the American soccer world. One of Arsenal’s top prospects to represent the U.S. over Germany? It seemed like a dream realized.
The talented young midfielder has yet to make a significant impact for Arsenal’s senior side, though Zelalem’s success is widely anticipated. With an exhibition game on hand against the MLS All-Stars in the country he represents internationally, the opportunity may have arrived.
Wenger appeared to rate Zelalem very highly:
“Last season he was on loan at Glasgow Rangers where he did quite well. He is a player with top quality.”
While on loan in Scotland, the American produced eight assists over 34 games, an output that doesn’t quite summarize his impact. The midfielder started very strong and suffered late, with no assists and reduced impact overall through the final 12 games of the seasons.
Wenger attributes the learning curve to physical maturation:
“He might take a bit longer to mature because he was physically a bit behind on body structure, but I’m sure he will be a great player. He [improved] physically but overall I’m convinced that he will make a great career.”
Zelalem echoed Wenger’s belief when asked what he needs to improve:
“Just getting in the gym. If I’m going to grow, I’m going to grow. It’s not frustrating, it’s just part of football.”
When youngster Zelalem announced his decision to represent the United States internationally, it was a monumental moment for player and country, but it wasn’t a snap decision. It was the conclusion to a saga of media speculation, fan hope and ambassadorial duties on the part of Jurgen Klinsmann.
The situation was not unlike that of Julian Green, another German-American to make the switch over the the United States side. Green preceded Zelalem in switching over, and at the tender age of 21, has already made an impact on the senior side, highlighted by an extra-time volleyed goal against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup.
Recruiting players like Green and Zelalem is a big deal for the United States as the nation finds themselves short on players talented enough to play for big clubs. Other than Green and Zelalem playing for Bayern and Arsenal respectively, 17-year-old Cristian Pulisic also plays in the Bundesliga for Borussia Dortmund.
Klinsmann is keeping tabs on Zelalem, and, according to the emerging Arsenal man, Klinsmann even communicates with him before games:
“Yeah, he texts me sometimes saying good luck in games. He wished me luck tomorrow as well. We talk occasionally.”
Zelalem was born in Berlin in 1997 to Ethiopian parents, but moved to United States in 2006. At that point Zelalem was eligible for Germany, Ethiopia and the United States, and all three nations were vying for him to declare for them.
Zelalem represented the German national program through U17 level, at which point he started considering the United States as a possible senior international team to represent.
A scouting report filed at the time compares the young midfielder to a former Arsenal midfielder, Cesc Fabregas, current Spain international who has also played for Barcelona and Chelsea — good company to be in.
Even after making the decision to represent the United States, there were more obstacles to overcome. FIFA stepped in and it seemed as though there might be a five-year hold put on Zelalem’s one-time switch from Germany to the United States.
The U.S contested the ruling, and Zelalem has since represented his country at the U20 and U23 levels. Zelalem said he wasn’t sure if he expected to be called up for upcoming U23 events. Whether he is or not, Zelalem has the potential to be a national team stalwart for years to come.