If you’re an American that follows soccer, then you’ve probably heard of Gedion Zelalem, the 19-year-old German/Ethiopian/American signed by English Premier League giant Arsenal two years ago, who decided to play for the USA at international level shortly after attaining U.S. citizenship earlier this year.
Just months after attaining citizenship, Zelalem was included in Tab Ramos’ squad for the 2015 U-20 World Cup, where he generally showed well as a center midfielder alongside Fulham prospect Emerson Hyndman, with one particularly outstanding performance in the USA’s 4-0 win against New Zealand. If you haven’t seen the way he orchestrated this victory against the tournament host, it makes for nice viewing --and it also showcases what this kid is capable of.
In any event, the big news surrounding the USA and Arsenal youngster is that former Scottish great Rangers is interested in taking him on loan for the season. In fact, according to reports on Wednesday, he is very close to agreeing to a deal, although it’s unclear still whether it would be for a full season or just until January.
Before we assess whether or not this is a good move, let’s take a step back for a second.
Unlike many of USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s German-born American convertees, Zelalem actually spent the most significant portion of his youth development playing in America, where his Ethiopian parents emigrated in 2006 when he was 9.
Zelalem would go on to play club soccer at MSC United (2006-2008), Bethesda SC (2009-2011), and finally, Olney Rangers (2011-2013), which, incidentally, was coached by Soccer America Youth Insider contributor and former George Washington University star Matthew Pilkington.
While playing for Rangers at the 2013 Dallas Cup, the annual international youth club tournament held in early spring, Zelalem was spotted by an Arsenal scout who brought him to London for a trial with the club’s youth academy. After earning a permanent place, the 17-year-old quickly moved up the ladder until he was named as a surprise inclusion in the Gunners’ first-team squad for their Asia Tour in July 2013. Following three strong performances, the youngster was suddenly being touted as the club’s next Cesc Fabregas
However, despite the hype, Zelalem has yet to appear for the London club in the Premier League. In fact, his only two senior appearances have come in the FA Cup, in 2013-14, and the UEFA Champions League, in 2014-15, in games where the Gunners were already winning comfortably.
In a way, it’s not surprising that Zelalem hasn’t really gotten his chance yet. After all, he’s only 18, and the Gunners -- well, they already have a world-class midfield. In the meantime, the USA prospect continues to put in some very impressive performances for the Arsenal U21s, including this stunning winner against Fulham’s U21s a few days ago.
Nonetheless, Zelalem is at an age now where he needs to play top-level soccer regularly. So, is the Scottish Championship (the second division) the best place for him?
As you may know, Rangers has -- or, rather, had -- an amazing tradition until it went bankrupt in 2012 and was forced to restart life in Scotland’s fourth division the following season. Now, it would be one thing if Rangers had secured promotion to the Scottish Premier League, as it was widely expected to last season, but since it did not, Zelalem would be finding himself playing in a second division that is far inferior to England’s Championship (where some of his compatriots currently play), let alone its Premier League.
Though a player of his quality would likely become a star in Glasgow relatively quickly -- especially if the team romps to first-place and promotion next season, as, again, it is expected to -- would Zelalem really benefit from playing in a lesser competition?
You’d have to imagine that Jurgen Klinsmann, for example, would say no. Off The Post, for one, certainly would. Wouldn’t he be better off showing what he could do in, say, MLS?