Can Gedion Zelalem Lead US Soccer to the Promised Land?
So you’re 17-year-old Gedion Zelalem and you’re faced with a choice: Do you want to pledge your footballing future to the all conquering reigning World Cup champions or to the team way down the list at number 27 in the FIFA ranking?
As it turns out, the decision wasn’t simple at all and Gedion’s surprise choice could have immense repercussions for the game in America.
For the US men’s national team has never had a genuine world-class outfield player and by pledging his future to his adopted country rather than the nation of his birth, Gedion may very well provide the jolt in class required for America to finally be taken seriously on the international stage.
Berlin-born Gedion moved to the US from Germany in 2006 and played six years of youth soccer in Maryland before being picked up by Arsenal and signing for the English Premier League side in January 2013.
America was only in the running because his Ethiopian father picked up a US passport last year and was able to grandfather his son in with his citizenship because he was still under-18.
We have been through all this before, of course, with Freddy Adu and Joey Altidore and a few other hot young prospects that fizzled and faded, but Gedion’s rapid rise through the youth academy in London has already won him two cameo appearances last year in the Champions League and FA Cup.
And this with a manager in Arsene Wenger who is notoriously cautious about over using his young stars and prefers to blend them slowly into the senior team.
The fact that expectations are so high – he is being compared at the Emirates to Cesc Fabregas for his playmaking ability – only makes his decision to plump for the US all the more encouraging.
He no doubt had Jurgen Klinsmann whispering in his ear, promising a quick rise to the first team but it still took quite some cojones to turn down the world number one.
The move has already triggered calls for restraint, to let Gedion develop further before pressurizing him with the weight of a nation’s hopes and dreams ands there is merit in that. But let’s not kid ourselves. He’s fighting for a place in one of the top teams in the word; he already knows all about pressure. He’s not some uncut rock waiting to be discovered; the diamond is already shining through.
The wonderful thing is that he is just 17 and he has every right to believe that he can achieve everything he sets out to.
Up until now, MLS soccer fans have largely been expected to look to the foreign imports for their heroes, the likes of David Beckham, Thierry Henry, and now Steven Gerrard.
Of the homegrown stars, the best were Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, but Landon never made it in Europe and Clint, while a dependable and gifted striker for Fulham and Tottenham, was never a genuine world-beater, not even really close.
Having a US player who could stand tall with the Messis and the Ronaldos would galvanize football across North America, I’m convinced of it. The US likes to be really good at stuff. When it’s mediocre it really doesn’t have its heart in the game.
That’s probably why so many American soccer fans ignore the MLS in favor of the EPL; they don’t have to think about how lacking the domestic game is in comparison.
It’s not like Klinsmann hasn’t put together a decent enough team, it just lacks that extra class that no amount of training or determination can instill.
It’s in the genes and maybe, just maybe, this kid is wearing them.