Arsenal youth product Gedion Zelalem will go straight into the United States men's national team at senior level if Jurgen Klinsmann gets his way. The U.S. coach told American Soccer Now he thinks the Berlin-born teenager, who just got his U.S. citizenship, is "a special player" and is "already at a level where he can definitely play on the senior team."
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A wiry 18-year-old with Ethiopian parents, Zelalem attended high school in Maryland before joining the Arsenal academy in 2013. A skillful attacking midfielder, his silky touch has drawn comparisons to Cesc Fabregas, and it’s easy to get excited about such a player representing the USA. However, behind that excitement lurks the sinking feeling that we’ve been down this road before.
A year ago, Julian Green was a promising but relatively unknown attacking midfielder, quietly going about his business in Germany while playing for Bayern Munich’s reserves. Klinsmann thrust him into the world spotlight by convincing him to play for the U.S. Granted, his one appearance in the tournament, coming on and scoring in extra time against Belgium with his first touch, was like something from a Disney movie. Since then, things have not been easy for the 19-year-old, who was born in Florida and moved to Germany at age 2.
His only appearance for Bayern’s senior team remains two minutes of garbage time in the 88th minute of a UEFA Champions League match back in 2013. Loaned to Hamburg this season in an effort to get playing time, Green has struggled. Last week a report emerged that HSV had apparently tried to offload him in January. He’s since been relegated to the reserves, where his on-pitch efforts have drawn criticism from the German sporting press. It seems that, for the time being at least, the wheels have come off the carriage in Green’s fairytale.
The parallels with Zelalem are enough to give pause.
Like Green, Zelalem has yet to truly break into the first team at Arsenal. He’s not yet featured in a Premier League match for the Gunners and, like Green, his only senior team appearance was as a substitute in the Champions League. Zelalem also represented Germany at youth level and still needs to be granted a special FIFA exception to be eligible to play for the U.S.
Still, Zelalem is regarded as one of the current hot prospects at Arsenal’s academy. Provided he’s granted the exception (U.S. soccer president Sunil Gulati is confident he will be), having such a player eligible to play for the U.S. is indeed exciting. But Klinsmann needs to better manage expectations around Zelalem, or he runs the risk of piling unnecessary pressure on him.
And it’s not just Klinsmann. U.S. soccer fans would be over the moon if one of these guys did turn out to be some kind of German-American Messi. Zelalem could well be that player. Heck, even Green still could be. Although on the same day he told reporters Zelalem was ready, Klinsmann urged patience regarding Green.
Having played and won the game on every level, Klinsmann undeniably knows talent. But he, of all people, should understand the importance of young players keeping their feet on the ground. Going forward, he’d do well to be more measured in discussing the likes of Zelalem and similar prospects. Because regardless of whatever natural talent they may possess, that’s what these players are – prospects who are still developing.
Plucking them from relative obscurity and offering them up as U.S. soccer’s shining hopes is risky business. We’re all familiar with the cautionary tale of Freddy Adu, who at 14 was hailed as the “new Pele” and now, at 25, finds himself without a club and hosting nightclubs around Washington D.C.
Let’s hope that things turn out better for Gedion Zelalem and Julian Green, whatever their futures may hold.