Friday, September 19, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Gedion Zelalem debuts on America's soccer stage

HARRISON, N.J. - Arsenal's first journey to the United States in 25 years proved to be every bit the spectacle that its many American fans expected.

Gedion Zelalem debuts on America's soccer stage

Gedion Zelalem (left) pursues Red Bulls star and former Arsenal legend Thierry Henry during Saturday´s game at Red Bull Arena. (Adam Hunger/AP)
Gedion Zelalem (left) pursues Red Bulls star and former Arsenal legend Thierry Henry during Saturday's game at Red Bull Arena. (Adam Hunger/AP)

HARRISON, N.J. - Arsenal's first journey to the United States in 25 years proved to be every bit the spectacle that its many American fans expected. 

The capstone of the Gunners' three-day tour of New York was a friendly against the Red Bulls on Saturday. Red Bull Arena was drenched in the English Premier League giant's primary colors, with wide swaths of red and white shirts speckled by yellow and navy blue. 

From the moment that fans started rolling out of Manhattan early in the afternoon, it was clear that the crowd would be overwhelmingly in the visitors' favor. It's nothing new for MLS teams to be drowned out in their home stadium by visiting opponents, but this was truly a rout. Even the Red Bulls' supporters club sections in the South Ward were full of Arsenal fans. 

They came from the New York area, for sure, but from well beyond that too. I saw flags and t-shirts from Boston, Calgary, D.C., Montréal, even Sydney. And in the section next to the one the Sons of Ben occupy when the Union cross the Delaware River, there was a boisterous contingent from Philadelphia. 

They all cheered for Arsenal's stars, most notably the dynamic midfield trio of Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere. That was to be expected. And it was no surprise either that Thierry Henry, a legend of both teams in Saturday's contest, drew the loudest roars of all.

But amid those currents, a wave of attention rolled toward the youngest Gunner in the starting lineup. For the first time in his professional career, Gedion Zelalem was playing on American soil, and a whole lot of people in the building wanted to see him.

The 17-year-old winger may or may not be the Savior Of American Soccer. More likely, he is just the next Julian Green: a skilled multi-national teenage prospect with ties to the United States.

Zelalem was born in Germany to Ethiopian parents, and grew up in Maryland. If he gets an American passport - a process which reportedly is underway - he'll be able to play for the U.S. national team.

Those in the know say that Zelalem could turn out to be better than Green, to the point that he'd be Jurgen Klinsmann's biggest recruit yet. And it's no secret that the sales job is already underway.

There were no "U-S-A!" chants for Zelalem on Saturday, as there were at a party for Arsenal fans at the Izod Center on Thursday night:

But there was plenty of hope for a moment to savor.

The closest Zelalem came to fulfilling those wishes was in the third minute of play, when he got his first touch of consequence. As he turned to look toward New York's net, a crescendo rose from all corners of the stadium - whether decked out in Arsenal, Red Bulls or U.S. national team gear.

If you were watching at home on TV, you likely heard it too. ESPN play-by-play voice Jon Champion, with his typical understatement, noted "a nice little ripple of noise when Zelalem received the pass."

Unfortunately, the move didn't come to much. And there weren't many crescendos after that, as Zelalem didn't see the ball too often for the rest of the half. He was substituted out at halftime, along with most of his fellow starters, and the crowd was left without much evidence of his talents.

The final score ended 1-0 in the Red Bulls' favor, with the only goal coming from Bradley Wright-Phillips in the 32nd minute. But the result was of little consequence. Even though Wright-Phillips is MLS' leading scorer, he wasn't anywhere near the spotlight when the press pack headed underneath the stands for postgame player interviews.

Instead, almost all of the American reporters wanted to talk to Zelalem.

It is no small thing to ask a 17-year-old to be the center of attention on a stage produced by the world's most popular sport, even when the stage derives from an exhibition game. But Zelalem held the title on merit, and he was ready when he stepped in front of the cameras and microphones.

"At the moment I'm just trying to break in to the first team of Arsenal," he said. "I really have more football to play, so at the moment I'm just trying to play football at Arsenal."

Zelalem said that "no decisions have been made" about his international future. He added that he and Klinsmann have "talked on the phone a few times, but nothing advanced - just hellos."

When asked if he had yet acquired a U.S. passport, Zelalem said one word: "No." And when he was asked if he's in the still process of doing so, he again said just one word: "Yeah."

Zelalem opened up a bit more when he was asked for his view on how the U.S. and Germany performed at the World Cup, and in particular both teams' willingness to give significant playing time to young players.

"They're both great countries - the U.S. is on the rise, Germany is already a great country," he said. "Whichever country I choose, it will be a good choice."

He went on to praise the United States' "great spirit," and added, "I was rooting for them like I was for Germany."

When asked if he felt any pressure about picking between the two nations, Zelalem offered another simple answer: "No pressure."

Again: he's just 17. It's nothing new for a kid of that age - because, let's face it, that's what he is - to be a less-than-open book.

But there was one moment that offered a glimpse of something more, just like that first touch of the game. When asked if he currently owns a U.S. national team jersey, Zelalem answered: "My dad does."

Hmm.

At around the same time that Zelalem was talking, Klinsmann was tweeting:

I wonder if Jerry Green might be putting in a phone call to Zelalem Wolydes, Gideon's father, in the next few days. And I wonder if anyone out there works at the post office in Manhattan Beach, Calif., If so, let us know if somebody stops by over the next few days to mail a package to the London suburb of Hertfordshire.

So how should expectations for Zelalem be managed? Combine America's sports hype machine with that of the Premier League, and you get equal odds for triumph and disaster.

Arsène Wenger has worked with countless precocious young talents in his 18 years as Arsenal's manager. So when he told ESPN's TV broadcast that Zelalem "has the talent to be an exceptional football player," that was of no small consequence.

"He is creative and has vision in the final third that can be deadly for opponents," Wenger added.

But he struck a cautious note too.

"Physically I don't think [Zelalem] is ready for the Premier League, and [he has to show] that mentally he is capable to be a top-level competitor," Wenger said.

Those are two pretty big hurdles to clear. So you might not see Zelalem featured in any of NBC's Premier League promotional material just yet.

You will, however, see quite a few of Arsenal's teammates, including one who has been in a position like Zelalem's before. Jack Wilshere was anointed as England's Next Great Hope when he broke into Arsenal's first team a few years ago, and for good reason. Here, finally, was an English player with skill and intelligence derived from Wenger's legendary teaching.

Wilshere hasn't yet delivered on that promise. Of course, he's just 22 years old, and a rational observer might conclude that his injuries in recent years should cut him some slack. But English soccer's chattering class is not known for its sense of reason. After the Three Lions crashed out of this summer's World Cup, some writers asked aloud if Wilshere is already starting to run out of time.

After Saturday's game, I asked Wilshere for his assessment of Zelalem's progress and potential.

"He's a great kid, that's the main thing," Wilshere said. "He's willing to learn, he's willing to listen, he's respectful, he looks up to us, and he asks questions about what he thinks he should be doing."

Like his manager, Wilshere left no doubt about what Zelalem can do on the field.

"He's got so much ability that he can be what he wants," Wilshere said. "Maybe he needs to get a little bit stronger, but his ability will take him through."

I followed that up by asking Wilshere whether he thinks Zelalem will see time with Arsenal's senior squad in the coming season. Zelalem got a taste of the big show last spring when he made his senior team debut in a FA Cup game.

It's not Wilshere's choice to make, obviously, but he sounded an optimistic note.

"He's going to be in and around it," Wilshere said. "He's still really young, so we have to give him a chance to develop physically, and then he's going to be training with players of a high quality every week. So he's only going to improve."

After Wilshere and Zelalem departed, I came across one of Wenger's French managerial contemporaries: Gérard Houllier. The former boss of (among others) Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool, Lyon, Aston Villa and the French national team is now the global head of soccer operations for Red Bull.

Houllier has a track record of developing young talent that runs through not only his club coaching career, but his nearly decade-long tenure with the French federation. In addition to spending four years as the senior squad's head coach, he also oversaw the under-18 squad for three years and the under-20 squad for two years.

I asked him for an assessment of Zelalem.

"The boy is an encouraging prospect, really," Houllier said. "The game now is not only a question of skill and speed, but of strength. He just needs to acquire that through the Arsenal reserve academy, and to develop his playing skill, but that will come with games."

Just as important will be Zelalem's psychological development. I asked Houllier about that too.

"When you go abroad, it's always a difficult task," he said. "If you manage to get out of that and show your worth, that means you have the mental side."

There's a quote worth remembering.

For a final reflection on Zelalem and the day's events, here's a little story about something I noticed on the way back to Philadelphia.

A few moments after boarding a New Jersey Transit train out of Newark, I overheard a conversation between two Arsenal fans with clearly American accents in the row in front of me.

The younger of the two, decked out in one of the Gunners' brand-new jerseys for this season, said at one point, "So that guy who started up front for us... he's American."

I looked up and saw via a reflection on a nearby window that this fan was scrolling through something on his cell phone. It was presumably Zelalem-related, because he proceeded to note Zelalem's multi-national eligibility, and that he's just 17, and a few other standard talking points. The fan then asked his traveling partner what Zelalem's ties were to the U.S., and neither of them quite knew.

Far be it from me to question any fan's bona fides, and I mean that. The American soccer community is at its best when it acts as a big tent. When those who prefer elitist exclusivity for the purpose of self-affirmation take the spotlight, it hinders the sport's growth.

(It should be noted that said streak runs through a wide swath of the population which sees English Premier League soccer as inherently superior to all other forms of the game.)

Still, I can't help offering a small token of advice to that anonymous American-accented Arsenal fan.

Yes, Gedion Zelalem is American. And you might want to get your facts straight on him sooner rather than later. Because even though he's just 17, he's already kind of a big deal, and he's only going to get bigger between now and the next time you see him in person.

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