Zelalem, 17, must now await FIFA approval, but that is believed to be a perfunctory exercise. Although he will remain eligible for Germany and Ethiopia (his family’s homeland), Zelalem has told friends and American officials that he plans to commit to the U.S. program, multiple sources said. The fact he flew to Washington from London during Arsenal’s normal weekly training routine further revealed his intentions.
Zelalem visited the Passport Agency on 19th Street Northwest, three blocks from the White House, and was recognized by at least two bystanders.
Affiliated with a prominent Premier League club, Zelalem will immediately become one of the top young prospects in the U.S. build-up to the 2016 Olympics and 2018 World Cup. The first realistic opportunity for Jurgen Klinsmann to summon him to the senior national team is in late March, the next official period on the FIFA match calendar, when the Americans play friendlies at Denmark and Switzerland.
Zelalem, a thinly built central midfielder with expert vision and ball skills, has played for Germany’s youth national teams but apparently never in official FIFA competition.
Zelalem is eligible for a U.S. passport through the Child Citizenship Act, a federal law that allows offspring of naturalized parents to also become citizens. Zelalem’s father, Zelalem Woldyes, was naturalized this year. The law applies to children under 18 only; Zelalem turns 18 on Jan. 26 — an approaching deadline that had raised anxiety among U.S. supporters and officials.
Despite German roots, Zelalem has always felt most comfortable with his American peers. Those close to him have described him as a typical suburban kid who embraced American teenage life. He has remained tight with former classmates and teammates in the Washington area; one parent said Zelalem’s friends here are amused when he uses a British accent in Arsenal video interviews.
Zelalem moved to the United States at age 9 and settled in Maryland’s Montgomery County, a close-in suburb of Washington, with his father and younger sister.
He thrived with the Olney Rangers, an elite youth squad coached by former George Washington University player Matt Pilkington. That exposure led to his discovery by Virginia-born Danny Karbassiyoon, a former Arsenal prospect and current scout. Zelalem also played one season for Walter Johnson High School’s varsity squad, guiding the Wildcats to the 2011 Maryland state championship game.
Before turning 16, the age at which he could join Arsenal’s academy full-time, Zelalem frequently traveled to London during school breaks to participate in workouts. He quickly drew comparisons to Cesc Fabregas, the Spanish national team midfielder who, in 2003, launched his club career with Arsenal at age 16.
Since signing with the Gunners, Zelalem has played primarily for the club’s youth squad. He made his first-team debut in an FA Cup match against Coventry City in early 2014 and appeared in an UEFA Champions League game against Turkish side Galatasaray this month. He has yet to play in a Premier League match, a fact that should temper U.S. fans’ expectations for the time being. (He was named to the 18-man squad three times during the 2013-14 league campaign.)
However, if he continues to develop at Arsenal, he could become the natural playmaker the U.S. system has sorely lacked. Once integrated into the U.S. program, Zelalem would probably figure prominently into the Olympic squad, which would consist primarily of under-23 players.
With the senior team, Zelalem would join several others with German backgrounds (not to mention Klinsmann). The 2014 U.S. World Cup squad featured German-born Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, John Brooks and Timmy Chandler. In addition, 19-year-old forward Julian Green, who scored in the World Cup, was born in the United States and raised in Germany. All have at least one American parent. National team candidates Terrence Boyd, Alfredo Morales and Danny Williams also have German ties.
Zelalem is different because he lived in the United States during his formative years. On multiple occasions, he trained with the U.S. under-15 national team, even though he was not eligible to play in formal matches because he wasn’t a citizen.
That is no longer a problem.