High school freshman Gedion Zelalem may join Arsenal in two years


Walter Johnson midfielder Gedion Zelalem, center, controls the ball during a game against Seneca Valley at Walter Johnson High School on Sept. 13. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
September 19, 2011

Gedion Zelalem is three matches into his high school soccer career, baby steps in what under conventional circumstances would become an enriching four-year episode. But little about Zelalem’s background and path are customary, and if all goes according to plan, he will play just two seasons at Walter Johnson High in Bethesda before moving with his family to London and enrolling in the youth system at Arsenal, one of the sport’s most prominent clubs.

Zelalem spent 10 days training with Arsenal’s prospects last month and, according to the 14-year-old midfielder and his father, was invited to join the Premier League team’s amateur program when he turns 16 in January 2013. With proper development, Arsenal would consider offering a pro contract within two years.

England’s strict guidelines for foreign players don’t apply in Zelalem’s case. He is a German citizen, of Ethiopian descent, and because of European Union laws, wouldn’t face any legal hurdles.

“It’s a dream for me,” said Zelalem, who moved with his family to the United States from Berlin in 2006 and is a U.S. permanent resident but not a citizen. “I’ve always wanted it. I’ve gotten the opportunity, and I’m going to take it.”

Until he turns 16 — the threshold set by FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, to join a club overseas — Zelalem will follow a normal teenage soccer routine: represent a neighborhood school that is No. 2 in The Post’s rankings and continue playing for an elite club travel team, Olney Rangers.

During breaks in the school year, however, he plans to return to Arsenal’s training grounds at London Colney, 18 miles north of the club’s gleaming Emirates Stadium. Arsenal has inquired about him returning over the Thanksgiving period, said his father, Zelalem Woldyes. (In Ethiopian tradition, Gedion was given his father’s first name.)

“My philosophy was to start with a smaller team and take it step by step,” said Woldyes, 36, a medical technician at a sleep clinic. “Arsenal felt like family, so we thought, ‘Why not?’ Gedion said to me, ‘Papa, I want to go to Arsenal.’ For him to become a professional at Arsenal, it would be a gift.”

Woldyes and Danny Karbassiyoon, Arsenal’s Richmond-based North American scout, attended the workouts.

Arsenal’s legendary manager, Arsene Wenger, presented the teenager a No. 4 “Gedion” jersey and posed for a photo with father and son.

Because of Zelalem’s age, Arsenal is not permitted to enter into a formal agreement until he turns 16. Even then, FIFA guidelines require the parents to move to the country and gain employment. Woldyes said he would begin looking for a job and a place to live next year.

The club must also provide an academic arrangement “should he cease playing professional football,” FIFA says in its “protection of minors” guidelines.

Zelalem is not the first high school soccer player from the area to seek a pro career. Most famously, Freddy Adu, a native of Ghana and a naturalized U.S. citizen, signed with Major League Soccer in 2004 at age 14 and played regularly with D.C. United for three years before being traded to Real Salt Lake.

Zelalem is a different case, in several ways. Contrasting the flash and explosiveness that made Adu an international sensation at age 12, Zelalem is a nuanced player who orchestrates from a deep central position and threads passes through narrow channels. He has an assist in each match for Walter Johnson and hasn’t scored.

“His sophistication and understanding of the game is far higher than anyone I’ve seen,” said Wildcats Coach Mike Williams, a former Howard University defender. “He is able to set the tempo like none other.”

This fall Zelalem practices full-time with Walter Johnson and rejoins Rangers for one session a week. When the high school season ends, he is scheduled to play in four club tournaments with the Olney Rangers, an elite unit fielding several top high school players from the Washington area.

“Being from Europe, you can see he is a little ahead,” Walter Johnson senior midfielder Gerry Madden said. “He’s very skillful and a quick thinker.”

Realizing Zelalem’s immense talent, Rangers Coach Matt Pilkington, an Englishman who played at George Washington University, reached out to Karbassiyoon, 27, a Roanoke native and former Arsenal prospect. Karbassiyoon, who didn’t want to comment for this story, watched Zelalem several times in area events and then pointed him out to Arsenal coaches at the prestigious Dallas Cup, an annual gathering of youth teams from around the world.

Arrangements were set for Zelalem to train in England.

“Once I got there, I was nervous,” said Zelalem, who admires FC Barcelona midfielders Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez. “The first day, I was staring, but I got used to it.”

If Zelalem ends up at Arsenal in 2013, he would be considered a “first-year scholar.” The Gunners currently have seven 16-year-olds in their first-year unit and 10 17-year-olds in their second. Most are English, with two from Spain and one apiece from Germany and Sweden.

Zelalem has much to learn, his coaches say, and with a tall, skinny build, he will need to muscle up to compete for a pro contract. Nonetheless, “he’s a special player,” Pilkington said. “The balance, the vision, the ideas — you don’t see that often at his age.”

Before the Arsenal proposal is realized, Zelalem will, like his contemporaries, cope with freshman awkwardness and big dreams.

“It’s important for him to learn in school and be with his friends,” his father said. “He needs to grow up like a normal kid.”

For the next 16 months, anyway.

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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