The Washington Post’s Steven Goff is reporting, and Grant Wahl is confirming, that Arsenal’s 17-year-old midfielder Gedion Zelalem is now a U.S. citizen, and has apparently made it clear to the U.S. Soccer federation that he wants to play for the USMNT.
Zelalem was born in Germany to Ethiopian parents, but moved to the U.S. with his father and lived in Maryland from the age of 9. At 16, he moved to London to be part of Arsenal’s youth academy.
So, he can play for the USMNT now?
Yes. Now he’s a citizen, the US Soccer federation just has to do a little FIFA paperwork and Zelalem is clear to play for Klinsmann’s team.
If he’s so good, why doesn’t he want to play for Germany?
Because he left Germany at the age of 9.
Why is he only becoming a U.S. citizen now, at 17?
It’s all to do with his father, Zelalem Woldyes, who became a U.S. permanent resident, but not a citizen, when he moved to Maryland with his son in 2006. Gedion could not become a U.S. citizen until his father did, which happened earlier this year.
Does he have an American accent?
OK then. But wait, hasn’t he played for Germany already?
Only for the under-15 and under-16 teams, which doesn’t tie him to Germany because they weren’t official UEFA or FIFA matches. Zelalem does not need to file a one-time switch like Jermaine Jones and Fabian Johnson did. But Zelalem does retain his German citizenship though, which means he’ll never have to worry about work permits in Europe.
When can he play for the U.S. then?
Klinsmann is about to call up players for January camp, and then play games against Chile and Panama. But these aren’t official FIFA dates so Klinsmann is unlikely to call in any European-based players, especially players like Zelalem who are fighting for first team spots with their clubs. Next chance after that will be two March friendly games, away to Denmark and Switzerland. I’d expect to see Zelalem at least called in to practice with the team for those games, and maybe to make his debut.
Once he plays for the US, is he cap-tied?
No, not if he only plays in friendlies. But if he appears for the USMNT in the Gold Cup this summer, then Zelalem will be tied to the U.S.
What sort of player is he?
From watching highlights, Zelalem seems to be a smart midfielder with a knack for maintaining possession in tight spots and picking out passes that no one else sees. Here’s some YouTube:
So the USMNT is going to win the World Cup now, right?
Down boy. Zelalem is still a very young man with a lot to learn about playing soccer at the highest level. If you’re going to get excited about Zelalem’s USMNT future, get excited about what he has the potential to provide the team in a far off tomorrow, not what he can provide today.
Wait … is this a Freddy Adu type situation?
No. Adu was hyped as the next big thing when he was 14 years old; which was silly. Zelalem is 17, and has already played for one of the biggest clubs in the world.
How many times has he played for Arsenal?
Officially? Just twice. He came on as a substitute in an FA Cup win over Coventry City in January 2014 and against Galatasaray in the Champions League in December. He’s also appeared in some pre-season friendlies and sat on the bench for a few Premier League games.
So he hasn’t played in the Premier League yet?
No, because he’s only 17. Have some patience.
So why are we getting excited again?
Because a player with a bright future has chosen the United States Men’s National Team. Remember how upset we all were when New Jersey-born Giuseppe Rossi decided to play for Italy instead? This is the opposite of that. It’s not just that Zelalem has an exciting future, it’s more about what his choice represents—the present USMNT is good enough that a player like Zelalem wants to be a part of it. And that’s something worth celebrating.