After months of wondering and hoping, US Soccer president Sunil Gulati confirmed this week that Arsenal phenom Gedion Zelalem had finally been cleared to play for the program. Now that the off-field saga of Zelalem's future is over, how does he fit into the U.S. Soccer plan? The 18-year-old will join Tab Ramos' squad for the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand starting on May 30th. This decision comes on the heels of USMNT manager Jurgen Klinsmann's declaration that the youngster was ready for the senior team.
I, like many others have only seen Zelalem play in a few games. The prevailing thought in my mind every time I've seen him has been "this kid is the real deal." Here is a video of a game against a Barcelona youth team from last year:
The first thing you notice when you watch him play is his technical ability. The way the ball sticks to his feet in tight spaces is astounding. His composure on the ball is the next thing that grabs your attention. He's able to spin in and out of danger without breaking a sweat. Maybe his most exciting talent is his ability to pick out a pass.
We will all learn more about his complete skill set the more we get to watch him. At this point all we have to go on are a couple of friendly appearances and YouTube clips. What I see is a player willing to create for his teammates wherever he is on the field.
This cycle's U-20 crop is a talented bunch. With the addition of Zelalem, the Baby Yanks could make a deep run in this year's World Cup. But how will Zelalem fit into the lineup? Here is my revised lineup prediction:
My guess is, Gedion will push further into the attack while Emerson Hyndman will serve as the box-to-box player behind him. Often they will switch roles and interchange. This tournament should be a huge measuring stick to judge Zelalem's talent level. If he shines in New Zealand, expect him to be fast tracked by Klinsmann to the senior team. If he falters and fails to make an impression, then it's time to take it slow and lift some of our heavy expectations off his shoulders.
Not only is this U-20 World Cup a chance for him to impress the USMNT coaching staff, but also an opportunity to impress any potential clubs looking to take him on loan. Arsenal are a big club with even bigger expectations. It would be unrealistic to expect Zelalem to break into the Arsenal rotation at only 18-years-old. Arsene Wenger has recently stated that a loan could be a possibility at the beginning of next season.
No matter how he performs in New Zealand or next season, let's take a step back and recognize that he's still just an 18-year-old prospect with a lot of soccer ahead of him. As long as he stays grounded and motivated, his natural talent could take him to heights we've never seen an American player reach.