The teenage midfielder started in Saturday's friendly against the New York Red Bulls, and after the match remained noncommittal about his national team future.HARRISON, N.J. — The sea of red jerseys that filled Red Bull Arena on Saturday weren’t your customary New York Red Bulls shirts, but rather those of visiting opponent Arsenal. Most of the Gunners fans who made the trip here did so hoping to see club legend Thierry Henry take on Arsenal for what might be the last time.
For some of the American fans in attendance, the real draw was the Arsenal teenager Gedion Zelalem, who could one day suit up for the U.S. national team, if he chooses the USA over Germany. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger gave U.S. fans their first good glimpse of the 17-year-old midfielder, handing him a start in Saturday’s friendly.
Zelalem didn’t really dazzle, but he was active playing as a right-sided midfielder. He had his share of clean touches, and on a few occasions his decisions helped keep the Gunners in possession, while other times he looked tentative and unwilling to impose himself on the match.
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Overall, though, Zelalem’s 45 minutes offered a glimpse of the talent that has Arsenal buzzing about his potential, and U.S. fans hoping he becomes the latest dual national to choose the stars and stripes over World Cup winner Germany.
Having arrived in the United States from Germany in 2006, and having played in the youth ranks in Maryland before being discovered by an Arsenal scout at the age of 16, Zelalem could choose to play for the U.S. if he is able to secure an American passport, which reports suggest he is in the process of doing. If the Berlin-born Zelalem is to be believed, he has yet to make a decision on a national team, and doesn’t plan on making one in the immediate future.
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Zelalem confirmed to Goal USA that he has yet to secure a U.S. passport, but did tell media at Red Bull Arena that his application for one is in the works. He also confirmed that he has spoken to U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
“We’ve talked on the phone a few times, but nothing advanced,” Zelalem said. “Just hello.”
When asked his opinion of the U.S. team’s performance at the World Cup, Zelalem had praise for the Americans.
“Great, great spirit,” Zelalem said of the U.S. “I was rooting for them like I was rooting for Germany. It was a nice World Cup.”
The past year has been a whirlwind for the teenager, who signed his first professional contract with Arsenal in March 2013 after impressing with the Gunners youth program.
The latest chapter of Zelalem’s burgeoning career saw him take the field Saturday across from former Arsenal legend Henry.
“Another dream come true,” Zelalem said of playing against Henry. “I watched him when he was at Arsenal in his prime. To play with him tonight was great.”
Zelalem has impressed his Arsenal teammates, and Wenger, with his potential, and even managed to be active in Saturday's match despite being out of position on the right wing rather than in his natural central midfield role.
"He's a great kid, and the main thing is he is willing to learn, to listen," Arsenal star Jack Wilshere said of Zelalem. "He's respectful. He talks to us and asks questions about what he thinks he should be doing. And the main thing is his ability, that's the key thing with him.
"He's got so much ability that he can be what he wants," Wilshere added. "He has to get a little bit stronger but that ability will take him through."
As for his international future, Zelalem sounded like a player who wasn’t ready to make a decision on the national team, and is simply trying to find his footing on a stacked Arsenal side for which playing time will be extremely scarce.
“At the moment, I’m just trying to break into the first team at Arsenal,” he said. “I really have more football to play.”
The youngster wasn’t ready to give away any hints about a national team preference. When asked about whether he owned a U.S. national team jersey, Zelalem smiled and simply stated, “My dad does.”