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U-20 World Cup to provide answers on highly-touted Zelalem

GedionZelalemArsenal1-MonacoEmiratesCup (Getty)



Patiently waiting and doing its due diligence paid off for U.S. Soccer in a big way on Wednesday. No, the program did not necessarily find its next messiah, but it did land a promising prospect, one who should answer many of the questions surrounding him this summer.

Arsenal prodigy Gedion Zelalem was cleared by FIFA to make his one-time international switch from Germany to the U.S. Men’s National Team on Wednesday, ending a waiting game that lasted several months. Zelalem pledged he would play for the U.S. back in late December, but his eligibility depended on paperwork that showed the naturalized American met residence requirements.

Zelalem was given the green light to suit up for the Americans at the 11th hour, and U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team head coach Tab Ramos included the 18-year-old midfielder in the 21-man roster for the upcoming World Cup in New Zealand. The addition of Zelalem is a major coup for what is already a talented and deep U.S. U-20s team, but now the tricky part comes.

Ramos will have just a couple of weeks to figure out how to integrate Zelalem into a squad that has been built over the past two years. Ramos admitted to reporters at a roundtable last week in New York City that he had not seen much of Zelalem, and that finding out what he was about as a player and seeing where he fit in with the group was a challenge the head coach faced if and when Zelalem got the green light from FIFA.

The good news for Ramos is that the U.S. has two scheduled but not yet announced friendlies before the start of its World Cup campaign. The Americans are set to take on Australia and fellow World Cup participant Serbia before opening Group A play on May 30 against Myanmar.

Those two exhibitions will be a perfect opportunity to really gauge where Zelalem can best help the team. With all signs pointing to the U.S. switching to a diamond formation, Zelalem is likely to occupy one of the three, more offensive-minded roles in the midfield.

Whether that is on the right, left or in the playmaker role is still yet to be determined, and there’s steep competition for each of those spots, meaning Zelalem will have to get assimilated quickly in order to ensure he’s starting at the end of the month when the games that really matter begin.

If he does make enough of an impression to be included in the U.S. lineup, fans who have caught glimpses of the youngster will get a much better look at what he’s capable of. Zelalem has been highly touted by Arsenal and U.S. Soccer officials – senior U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in March he thought Zelalem was ready to contribute to the first team now – but there’s still uncertainty from those on the outside as to how good he really is.

The World Cup should answer several of the questions that remain, assuming Zelalem is an active participant. It will not be an ideal situation for him to showcase his talent given his unfamiliarity with this group of U.S. players, but it will be more exposure to a high level of play that can both further his development and reveal to observers if the hype is warranted.


  1. The kid seem like “Cholo” Simeone Inter era type player. Problem is the kid didn’t have time to gel with the rest of the kids.

  2. All this makes for material for sportswriters but the long term importance is limited. Performances in youth internationals prove very little — just one bunch of youngsters playing another. It is not until the kids have to compete with experienced professionals that you can make any judgments. And the chances of any one young player making the grade — even to get regular playing time at a decent club are not all that great either. The lower divisions in Europe are full of players who were once touted at the next “______” but didn’t pan out. Unless you have nothing better to do, you can check back in two or three years to see how this latest phenom is doing.

  3. I am not a fan at all on these last minute player additions. It was wrong with Green and its wrong with this guy. He took somebody’s place that helped qualify and he’s done nothing to earn a spot at all. This is terrible policy and it HAS to be demoralizing to the other players.

    Green saved JKs butt by scoring a fluke goal… done nothing since. This clown better show something that justifies his inclusion, sight unseen

  4. Ah… Now the US is calling for ‘naturalized’ players… Hmmm interesting… So I guess there’s not a deep pool of talent in the country to be calling all these different players from every other country to play for the USoAMNSTU20… Funny

    • Even Spain does it. Ever heard of Diego Costa, now with Chelsea? Born in Brazil, lived there until he was about 19 when he got an agent who took him to Europe. He played a couple of friendlies for Brazil and later became a Spanish citizen. About a year or two ago he switched to the Spanish national team. Brazil wasn’t happy about it.

    • Our pool is fine… hardly tapped… not everybody plays Div 1 soccer or big name club mills. The NATs have to get off their butts and go looking for them

      The real issue is that JK doesnt believe in American players and that is one of the main reasons I want him GONE

      • Please explain the “real issue that JK doesn’t believe in American Players”… it your claim that Duel Nationals like Jones, Fabian, Aron, Diskerud Chandler, Brooks, Green, Alarvardo, & Yarbrough are not “American Players”….OR is it your contention that JK hasn’t searched through the US leagues enough to find and give opportunities to players al-la Morris, Ibbara, Zusi, Besler, Zardes, Trapp, Kitchen, etc….
        If anything JK and his staff have taken a balanced approach to finding players regardless of their background who could contribute to the cause. The fact that the US groomed players is not the fault of JK, but of the development structure within the US.

      • Rusty,

        I did not realize that Jordan Morris wasn’t an American player playing in that most uniquely American of things, an NCAA college soccer team.

      • Gedion was here from age 9 to 16 and would still probably be here if Arsenal hadn’t scouted him at the Dallas Cup. Unlike the German-American dual nationals, Gedion actually *is* an American development story and would be so even if FIFA hadn’t granted him the switch.

  5. Of course, with Gedion there are always the comparisons to Adu and other US soccer youth flameouts. The difference is rather obvious. Gedion is the jewel of the Arsenal youth ranks who has been under the tutelege of one of the top developers of youth talent in Europe in the World. If Arsene is so impressed with Gedion to give the kid minutes in a Champions League match at 17 years old do you think its possible we should sit up and take notice? He may turn out to be slightly decent… just me but I think Gedion’s position with Arsenal may be just a slight touch more of his abilities than Freddy signing with DC United.

    This is not the media and US youth soccer hyping Freddy Adu — its apples to dump trucks. Could he flame out — sure — many young players never reach their potential. But to compare his situation to that of Adu simply because both are (or were) young stars is the height of myopathy.

    • But then again Arsene hasn’t been impressed enough to give the kids any real minutes lately, has he?

      • well he’s not ready and hasn’t looked good with the academy team. Dan Crowley seems to have surpassed him as a better prospect

    • I wouldn’t call him the jewel of the Arsenal youth system. Serge Gnabry and Chuba Akpom are both 19 and still largely play with the youth setup and both are closer to the first team than Zelalem. Zelalem has gotten much praise from Wenger for his technical ability and his potential, but I don’t think they’re anywhere near read to call him the finished product.

      For perspective, both Fabregas and Jack Wilshire were both regulars in the first team at 18/19. They were both considered jewels of the youth system. They’re careers have gone in significantly different directions.

      I would argue Zelalem is better then Adu, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to pan out.

      All that being said, I’m a gooner and USMNT fan, so I hope like hell he works out. If he does and he establishes himself in the first team his will be the first Arsenal jersey I buy.

  6. Ramos will have to learn pretty quickly which players in midfield play well together. With Hyndman, Zelalem, Acosta, Thompson, Arriola, and Canouse as the leading candidates for 4 spots there are lots of combinations to be tried.

    That may be fairly easy to see while attacking, but which players combine to help each other when things are tough and the opposition has a good spell or who will provide defensive cover when too many teammates are caught going forward is harder to see in practice sessions (barring an obvious defensive mid who is a pure destroyer which none of these guys really seem to be.)

    Ramos says he likes the 4-3-3 formation so that may not be off the table, especially if one of the forwards/midfielders can be an adequate left forward and a midfielder displays the required endurance, athleticism, skill and tactical sense to play the lone CM spot.

    • Ramos has said that he will rely on everyone on the squad because there are so many games in a short span. All of those players will probably get substantial minutes and since the US is in a relatively weak group, I think Ramos can afford to mix and match to see what combo works best for the knock out rounds.

  7. I think it would be borderline malpractice if he didn’t get his 4 studs on the field: Rubin, Zelalem, Hyndeman, Acosta. So the only questions should be “who are the other 2 non-defenders” and “what formation.”

    A 4-4-2 naturally puts Rubin at a forward spot, and Acosta at some sort of DM position

    As far as the midfield goes, Hyndeman probably makes up the remaining middle position. So Zelalem goes wide with the ability to cut in and you need another wide player.

    In the 4-3-3, Rubin probably plays the right wing. Either Tall or BJIV plays up top, though you could try to go false 9 (with either Rubin or, more likely, Arriola). Hyndeman, Acosta, and Zelalem make up the 3 central midfielders. You still need a wide player.

    The problem is that Thompson, Allen, Rubin, and Zelalem all prefer the right wing to the left. Either someone is going to have to play out left (either way), or Hyndeman will have to push out there.

    • PS – the two obvious players if we had our whole pool would be Green (out left) and Novakovic (up top). While it’s no fun not seeing us put out that lineup, it bodes well for us going forward to 2018 and 2022 that we have six compatible top prospects (even knowing not all of them will pan out).

  8. Wait..this one time switch is confusing me. If he never played in an official youth tournament for Germany then why would he need to file a switch? My understanding is you have to file a one time switch if you’ve played in an official youth tournament or qualifying. So won’t he still technically be eligible to play for Germany or Ethiopia even after the WC (if he then files a switch)? Or is something different with Zelalem because he received US citizenship after representing Germany in youth friendlies?

    • Good question. I *thought* (and I could be totally wrong) that the issue wasn’t actually the one time switch. It was that the US had requested the five-year waiting period be waived because he had gone to school in the US in his youth.

      I believe the actual issue is that if he had played for Germany, he couldn’t ever switch because he wouldn’t have been a US citizen when he played his first official International match (which would have been Euros with Germany). I think the rule is that you have to be eligible to switch when you play your first match with whatever country. You can’t play, then get citizenship, then switch.

      • DCDEACON is right, you can only switch teams if you were a citizen of all said countries at the time you played in an official match. GD never played in an official match or he wouldn’t be allowed to suit for the US. However, since he did suit up in an unofficial match/friendly, he is listed as an German player. So he can and has to file a switch to the US. However, FIFA has to go through everything to make sure he meets all the eligibility requirements. I asked a friend who worked at FIFA in Zurich, but she says is still gray on it.

      • Which is why Fagundaz can never play for the U.S.

        When he played for the Uruguay U-20’s he was not a citizen of the U.S.

  9. Now that he’s been cleared to play for the US by FIFA he’ll have a chance to show what kind of player he can be for the USNTs. The U-20 World Cup is the perfect place for him to begin his career with the US. A good showing in this tournament this summer and he could make the U-23 Olympic Qualification squad this fall. If he performs well in the U-23’s he’ll have earned a shot at the Sr. Squad when it comes time to face the minnows of CONCACAF during the 1st round of WC qualifications.
    There are a number of interesting prospects with this U-20 squad….Rubin, Zelalem, Canouse, CCV, EPB & Payne may be the top prospects….but by no means are they the only ones.

    • Hyndman is a better prospect than Canouse for me. Also, Miazga, Allen and Jamieson are already contributing for good clubs in MLS and Thompson is seeing spot minutes. Arriola has seen time throughout the various squads in the Tijuana system. And that doesn’t even include the guys that are not on the roster (Novakovich, Gall, Moreno, Pfeffer, etc.) A lot of talented prospects (key word being prospect) that have a chance to grow into solid or even special players. I feel fairly optimistic.

      • Only a small percentage of “prospects” pan out but the more you have, the more that should eventually become good players. Seems that there are quite a number of decent prospects at this level for the US.

      • True that! And along with greater numbers bringing better odds at success, there is the factor of the burden of expectations being shared among many rather than one anointed one carrying the entire weight of US Soccer on young shoulders. Which as well brings a much better chance at feet on the ground, hard work and greater focus, or… success.

      • I’m not falling for the hype.
        We’ve heard the “this is different, these guys are pros already” stuff before and then we still fell flat on our face.

      • I’m speaking more in regards to the future of US Soccer more than results in a single U20 tour. I’ll watch, I hope they do well, but honestly, I don’t think its that big a deal. Hype, no hype, I see talent in greater numbers now than I did 10 years ago.

  10. With some players it is obvious right away and it’s only a question of how hard they work and how dedicated they are. I felt that way about Zardes. I also remember the first time I saw Pablo Mastroeni many years ago when he was a nobody. I thought, wow, who is this guy. He really stuck out. I remember the first time I saw Messi in a youth tournament, before he had started playing for the Barcelona first team.. It was like he was running on grass and everyone else was running in sand. The one time I saw Zelalem, he looked very smooth, seemed to glide across the pitch. If he’s a good as some think, we won’t need to see much to know if he is good or not.

      • Like I said, it’s a question of how hard he works and how dedicated he is. I think Freddy has answered that question many times over the years. He looks good on the field, often starts out well, and after a while ends up on the bench.

      • There was this first half I once watched Adu play for the Philadelphia Union that kind of sums up Freddy Adu in a nutshell. Remarkable skill, remarkable petulance…some brilliance mixed with bad decision-making and bookended by two yellow cards that led to his dismissal at the end of the first half.

        The guy had some skills. But his mentality…well, it’s all there in the tape.

      • I’ve always said, Adu belongs in beach soccer. Good skill in a 6 foot by 6 foot square, subs allowed, age limit irrelevant… he’s the poster boy!!

      • The high point of my optimism in US Soccer development was after that U20 game v Brazil where adu and altidore and bradley were probably 1,2 and 5th best on the field that day.

        Lesson learned about tempering the hype of the youth.

        That said, Gedeon sure is smooth.

      • Justin,

        Comparisons with Adu are unwarranted.

        Adu was 14 when he got on the hype train.

        GZ was 17 or so, and physically much more impressive, when all this “US hype” started.

        And GZ has been with Arsenal now for some time and is, if we are to believe the so called journalists, highly thought of by Wenger.

        Fredinho did not get the same kind of “schooling” in his developmental years.

        Not that he is there yet but GZ is way closer to being the finished product than Adudinho was.


    • I don’t think there is any question about him being a good player, the problem is how do you integrate him when you have Hyndman and Senora in midfield? If you just add him, you will need to take out a winger or God forbid the defensive mid.

      • I’ve wondered this as well. In some ways is he not in direct competition with Hyndman? How do you make it work with both on the field, unless you play one on the wing in a diamond, not ideal, or as a second forward.

      • I think Zelalem will be moved to the wing UNLESS Senora is not good enough to keep Zelalem from taking his position.

      • r. benjamin,

        Re Hyndman, it is a good problem to have.

        And if GZ is as good as they say, then he can move around and adjust.

      • 4-4-2 diamond

        ——Rubin — Jamieson—
        ———- Acosta————–

    • I actually completely disagree with Gary. GZ’s best qualities are reported to be his sense of the game and his ability to move the ball efficiently. Those are not qualities that are obvious right away at all. It will take many games of watching him closely to get a good idea of his potential.

  11. So, let’s say a skinny diamond. How about something like this:


    • By some…. surely. Still… it’s OK to see a bright young talent suit up for the US and be glad…. right?. And….. on the whole- we’ve matured as a fanbase and in the media. Most every post and article I see lauding the hopeful, is also is laced with caveats to balance the “hype”.

      Hope springs eternal…. and thats good thing. After all…. ain’t unbridled optimism and naivite as American as Chevrolet?

      • Dalomismo,

        I already have my spot reserved on the hype train. Hoping he continues to develop and helps the Nats in the future. Just being sarcastic with the original post.

    • with him and all the recent young players, I see/read more comments about the hype than actual hype. Its not even there, it projection, a straw man.

      • Being dense on purpose, much? 😉

        He implied that there seem to be more people trying to temper everyone’s expectations nowadays, than the people with lofty expectations in need of tamping down.

        Now, I’m not sure if that perception is reality, but I get it.

        Like after Jordan Morris scored a goal against Mexico, it felt to me like everybody and their momma was tying themselves to the tracks in front of some phantom hype train. Purty sure Ives dedicated a whole podcast to telling people to calm down.

      • That’s saying a lot coming from your intellectual arsenal.

        Quick! Let’s talk about Sunderland…you’ve got to meet your unprovoked quota!

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