The Twitterverse and Intertubes are abuzz today about Gedion Zelalem, the young soccer player who wants to play for the U.S. national team.
We imagine you have many questions. We’ll try to answer them …
Pardon us for asking, but who is Gedion Zelalem?
Gedion is a 17-year-old midfielder with Arsenal, the prominent English Premier League club based in north London.
Does he actually play for Arsenal?
He plays primarily for the youth squad and, if he remains on his promising trajectory, he’ll continue to be integrated into the first team. He has never appeared in a Premier League match but made the game-day roster three times last season, entered an FA Cup match last January and played the entire second half of an UEFA Champions League match at Galatasaray (Turkey) this month. He also featured for Arsenal’s under-19s in the UEFA Youth League, a junior version of the Champions League (five starts and one goal in the team’s first-place finish in group play this fall).
What position does he play?
He is a central midfielder with superb vision, touch and distribution skills. He can play in a deep-lying position, but because of his slight build, is probably better equipped at this age to operate in a more advanced role so he can concentrate on his footwork and passing rather than physical confrontations in defensive midfield.
Which countries can he represent in international soccer?
Germany (birthplace), Ethiopia (ancestry) and the United States.
How is he eligible to play for the United States?
On Monday, he became a U.S. citizen. On Tuesday afternoon, he was scheduled to pick up his passport in Washington before returning to London and rejoining Arsenal. A passport provides eligibility to compete for U.S. national teams.
Okay, but how was he eligible for a U.S. passport?
His Ethiopian-born father, Zelalem Woldyes, became a naturalized citizen this week. Under the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, the foreign-born minors of naturalized citizens immediately become eligible for a passport.
So how did it all go down the last few days?
According to his father, a former medical technician in the D.C. suburbs, Gedion needed permission from Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger to travel to the United States. Wenger granted it following the Gunners’ Premier League match against Queens Park Rangers last Friday. “He was very excited for Gedion,” the father told the Insider. “Very excited and very helpful.” Gedion and his father flew to Washington on Saturday. The father was sworn-in as a citizen at a district office in Northern Virginia on Monday morning. He and Gedion then drove to downtown Washington to apply for expedited passports.
Has Gedion ever lived in the United States?
Yes. For about six years. He moved to the United States with his parents and younger sister in 2006. (A second sister was born the following year.) His father is remarried, to an American of Ethiopian descent. Gedion attended Montgomery County public schools, starting in fifth grade. He withdrew midway through his sophomore year at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda in order to relocate to London and join Arsenal full-time. His parents and sisters have lived in London for about two years but plan to set permanent roots in the Washington area in 2015 or ’16. They have a home in Silver Spring, Md., and hope to stay in Montgomery County.
Was there a deadline for him to utilize the Child Citizenship Act?
Yes — Jan. 26, his 18th birthday.
I read that he would have to renounce German citizenship, thus losing EU status and impacting his work permit in England.
As I understand it, that is not accurate. He didn’t apply to become an American citizen; he became a U.S. citizen through law because he is the child of a naturalized American. He has two passports, just like several other U.S. players.
So does Gedion consider himself German or American, or both?
Both, but because he spent his formative years in the United States and assimilated quickly, he feels more American than German. Those close to him say he is a typical suburban-raised teenager who embraced American culture and forged close friendships.
So he has the choice of playing for three countries, but will he definitely play for the United States?
Let’s put it this way: He would not have interrupted his Arsenal training regimen this week to fly across the pond for a passport if he was not serious about playing for the United States. (The Jan. 26 deadline also figured into the timing, of course.) Those close to the situation said that, for quite some time, he has wanted to represent the United States. After receiving citizenship Monday, he chatted with U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati, who offered congratulations.
Gulati tweeted Tuesday morning:
Gedion Zelalem is now a U.S. citizen. At his request we have started the FIFA process which would allow him to be eligible for the #USMNT.
— Sunil Gulati (@sunilgulati) December 30, 2014
Gedion’s father said: “He feels more American. He grew up here. Germany is his birthplace and his family is from Ethiopia, but he made his friends in the United States. … Being American is a big privilege for both of us. I hope in the future Gedion does big things for this country.”
Asked if Gedion will play for the United States right away, his father said: “What I see, more or less, is Gedion will come to the U.S. team when they call him. Definitely.”
Did he ever play for Germany?
He represented Germany on the youth level but never in official competition. He also attended at least two U.S. youth camps but wasn’t eligible to play in a formal match.
Would he consider playing for Ethiopia?
No. Aside from lineage, he has no ties to Ethiopia.
What is the earliest he could suit up for the U.S. senior national team?
The next official period on the FIFA calendar, when clubs are obligated to release players for international duty, is the last week in March, when the United States will play friendlies at Denmark and Switzerland. Jurgen Klinsmann will open the annual winter training camp Jan. 12 in Carson, Calif., leading to friendlies at Chile and home against Panama, but that is largely geared toward MLS players out of season.
Would Gedion play for the United States at the Under-20 World Cup in New Zealand, May 30-June 20 (assuming the Americans qualify)?
I doubt it. Klinsmann would probably want to integrate him into the older squad ahead of the CONCACAF Gold Cup. (The senior squad will play friendlies at the Netherlands and Germany in early June.) Zelalem would, however, become a prime candidate for the under-23 team, which is building toward the qualifying tournament for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Once he plays for the United States, he cannot change his mind and play for Germany, right?
Playing in a friendly does not lock him into U.S. service forever. That would occur with an appearance in a FIFA-sanctioned tournament, such as this summer’s Gold Cup. In soccer parlance, he would become “cap-tied.”
Germany is probably upset about this, no?
Maybe. But the world champion Germans have a much deeper player pool than the United States. The American gain is bigger than the German loss, if that makes sense.
How many German-Americans are now in the player pool of our German-American coach?
Midfielder Jermaine Jones, defender-midfielder Fabian Johnson, center back John Brooks, outside back Timmy Chandler, forward Julian Green, defensive midfielder Danny Williams, forward Terrence Boyd and wing Alfredo Morales. Forward Andrew Wooten also may join the mix at some point. Unlike the others, Zelalem has lived a large portion of his life in the United States and honed his skills here. The others developed in Germany.
What was his formal training in the United States?
He played his freshman season at Walter Johnson High, helping guide the Wildcats to the 2011 Maryland state championship game. His coach was Mike Williams, who played on the Howard University squad that advanced to the 1988 NCAA final. Mostly, though, Gedion grew as a player with Olney Rangers, an elite club based in Maryland. The coach was Matt Pilkington, a Brit who starred at George Washington University. Several of Gedion’s Olney teammates are now playing in U.S. colleges: Jake Rozhansky (Virginia), Chase Gasper (UCLA) and Jeremy Ebobisse (Duke), among others.
Who discovered Gedion for Arsenal?
Danny Karbassiyoon, a native of Roanoke, Va., who signed with Arsenal out of high school in 2003 and went on to play for Ipswich Town and Burnley. He retired prematurely because of knee problems and became a U.S.-based Arsenal scout.
With Gedion on board, should we expect the United States to gain world domination?
Deep breaths, everyone. He is not yet 18. He has never played a first-team league match. He has never played in official international competition. Physically, he looks his age. He is a highly regarded prospect in an ideal learning environment. Because of his Arsenal and German ties, as well as his decision to play for the United States instead of Germany, expectations are already soaring. Over the years, other can’t-miss Americans have failed to meet impossible expectations at various stages of their career (i.e. Freddy Adu, Brek Shea and Jozy Altidore). With proper growth at Arsenal and guidance in the U.S. system, he could become the central conductor American soccer has so dearly craved.