Exclusive: Gedion Zelalem Talks About his U.S. Team Debut At the U-20 World Cup
In an exclusive interview with VICE Sports, phenom Gedion Zelalem talks about his experiences playing in a U.S. shirt for the first time.
Kieran Clarke, Wiki Commons
On first inspection, it was simply another goal in a lopsided U-20 World Cup contest between footballing giants, and minnow hosts. But in examining the direct build-up to Paul Arriola's 57th minute strike for the United States in their 4-0 rout of New Zealand in Auckland last week, and you notice something else. Something special.
After receiving the ball forty yards out from the opposition goal, and out-turning a defender to create space, US midfielder Gedion Zelalem began trotting up the pitch.
Four Kiwi defenders bore down on him, but Zelalem remained upright and unrushed. The defenders collectively drew to within a yard or two of the 18-year-old, crowding him in. To release the ball to Arriola, Zelalem needed to thread the eye through the footballing needle. With a deft touch of his right boot, he did it with a subtle ease, and while Arriola's finish was clean, the credit was all Zelalem's.
Asked what statement the US victory made to the World Cup, Zelalem, who is contracted to Premier League glamour club Arsenal, fired back a patriotic response.
"That we're not just about baseball and American Football – we can play good soccer too," Zelalem told VICE Sports. "Soccer is growing every day in America. The MLS is getting bigger, and we have some really talented players in this group. I think we'll do really well in this tournament."
In terms of recognition by the international footballing world, Zelalem, who was born in Berlin to Ethiopian parents, is only freshly American. Zelalem, a German youth international who moved with his father to the suburbs of Washington DC aged nine, was only granted only by FIFA just a month ago. He received his American citizenship last December.
While Zelalem's heart was always set on representing the United States, he admits he'd given up hope on playing in the U-20 World Cup.
"I didn't think I was going to be in this group because it took like four or five months," the lanky, but shy, midfielder says. "[FIFA] gave me a week as a window, and I thought 'there's no way it will come now in this week.' But it did. I was very excited. I called my friends and told them I was playing for the US."
Of course, Zelalem's not just some teenager with a new American passport. Nor is he just another kid with a sharp pass, and vision that belies his 18 years.
He's the latest young American footballer to be handed that sweet, but obscene, compliment of "Next Big Thing." Indeed, the hype machine has been unstoppable since Zelalem, whose Maryland youth academy coach once compared to Barcelona legends Xavi and Andres Iniesta, signed with Arsenal two years ago. He has only appeared off the bench for the club twice, since.
Interest in his march towards U.S. eligibility has never waned in mainstream media or on internet forums. Opportunities have rarely been missed on talking him up as the creative future of the US midfield.
The US national men's team coach Jürgen Klinsmann has gotten into the act too, saying Zelalem is ready for the senior side. Klinsmann's comments are hyperbolic, but the teenager has flashed real promise in New Zealand.
His confident performance in Auckland oozed class. Zelalem never looked pressured on the ball, while his passes were as bullet-like and as accurate as Xavi could ever hope. His technical skills were a real treat, with a cool nutmeg of Kiwi defender Jesse Edge going viral on social media already.
"A great passer, and very easy to connect with," US captain Emerson Hyndman says of his teammate. "He sees the game very well. As a midfielder, it's easy to play with him and get into positions because you know he'll see you."
But while Zelalem's potential was on show against New Zealand, his flaws and need for growth was highlighted against Ukraine three days later in Wellington.
In a game where the US needed at least a draw to claim top spot in their group, Zelalem went missing in action.
The 18-year-old's lack of physical assertiveness was exposed, while that unrushed creative spark, badly needed by his team, never appeared. A 3-0 thumping resulted.
Such performances reinforce the need for the U.S. footballing public to be patient with Zelalem, who is rumored to be heading out on loan to start the next Premier League season.
"We have to be careful in the way we brand our guys too early," US U-20s coach Tab Ramos says. "Gedion is certainly a very good player, and he plays for one of the best clubs in the world, in Arsenal. "But he still has a lot of work to do. He is a young player and there's a lot to learn."
Ramos' warnings must be heeded. U.S. football fans need no reminding about the careers of others in the last decade branded as "Next Big Thing."
Think Jozy Altidore, Juan Agudelo and Fabian Hurzeler. Stock fell just as fast as it rose for them, while the sickly career arc of another Washington D.C.-raised midfielder, Freddy Adu, scarcely needs bringing up.
Hype is something Zelalem can't control. He can't help people talking, or hoping for something special.
Right now, all he can do is train hard, pull on that new U.S. jumper, and try and create more special moments in his side's Round of 16 knockout match against Colombia in Wellington in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
"It means everything," Zelalem says, when asked about playing for the US. "Most of my important years I lived in America. All my friends are there, my family are there. I feel American. I'm very excited to be there."