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Arsenal midfielder Gedion Zelalem about to jump off the U.S. Soccer radar

Mar 11, 2014, 9:43 PM EDT

Arsenal v Galatasaray - Emirates Cup Getty Images

On one level, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, because a lot of devoted U.S. Men’s National Team fans would love to see a player with Gedion Zelalem‘s profile declare for the team. He’s young, talented, about to break through (in the next few years) with Arsenal, and while that doesn’t guarantee stardom, it still constitutes a profile that the U.S. hasn’t had in its talent pool.

On another level, the meme quality of Zelalem’s U.S. national team potential deserves a reset.  The Berlin-born midfielder of Ethiopian descent who used to live in the United States, coming to the States as a nine-year-old. He trained with the U-15 team but couldn’t play because he wasn’t a citizen. Since, he’s appeared at U-15, U-16, and U-17 levels for Germany. He lacks citizenship, and according to a November report by the BBC, his parents would prefer he play for Ethiopia.

In other words, there’s no reason to be broken-hearted if Zelalem doesn’t play for the United States, because it was always a long shot – one that’s about to go away.

According to the German Football Association’s website, Zelalem has been named to the squad for UEFA Euro U-17 qualifying. Were he to appear for Germany in that competition, he wouldn’t be able to switch the to U.S., with only dual citizens allowed to make a one-time change before appearing at senior level.

Germany’s first qualifier is March 26 against Georgia, but given the 18-man squad plays three games in six days, Zelalem is likely to get at least a cap, particularly considering he’s appeared at this level for Germany before.

But looking that deep into the conversation is overkill. This isn’t a matter of whether Zelalem should or should not be considered American. That’s an entirely different (and more important) discussion, one which sports writers have little to offer the debate. You don’t need Richard Farley’s hot sports take on something academics spend careers pursuing.

This is about eligibility and intent. Is Zelalem eligible to play for the United States? Right now, no. Does he intend to play for the United States? Right now, no. Is there good reason to think the answer to either of these questions will change? Right now, no, and in two weeks, the questions will be even less relevant than they’ve been since Zelalem first appeared for Arsenal in January.

There is, however, some good news: Though Zelalem is unlikely to play for the United States, there are literally thousands of players 17 and younger across the country with real aspirations of a professional soccer career. Some of them are already on the U.S. national team’s radar, with places in Major League Soccer academies and prominent clubs meaning team sites, blogs, and local media are ready to give them coverage. If you really want to see a U-17, future national teamer, there may be one near you.

These players are U.S. players coming through the U.S. system who have real dreams of representing the U.S. They’re not somebody who is moving toward playing for Germany.

The Aron Johannsson example says we shouldn’t close doors, but Johannsson wanted to switch. Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler all self-identified as Americans, at some point.

Zelalem’s been playing for Germany since 2012. And in 2014, he’s likely to make that commitment final. This shouldn’t be news.

Allow me to congratulate Gedion Zelalem, should he play against Georgia. Here’s hoping this is the next step in a long and successful soccer career. That it won’t be with the U.S. shouldn’t make it any less relevant.

  1. bostonredsoccer - Mar 11, 2014 at 10:14 PM

    Well, he wouldn’t be fully “tied” to Germany as he also has the option to change to Ethiopia if things don’t work out.

    • Richard Farley - Mar 11, 2014 at 10:16 PM

      Oh, thanks for that! Here I was, looking at everything from the U.S. point of view … I appreciate that. Thank you.

      • bostonredsoccer - Mar 11, 2014 at 10:18 PM

        Not that a lot of players would want Ethiopia as a backup, but it would make his parents happy, right?

  2. bostonredsoccer - Mar 11, 2014 at 10:17 PM

    The link about his parents and Ethiopia leads to the US U17 Men’s web site.

    • Richard Farley - Mar 11, 2014 at 10:20 PM

      Thanks, Boston. I appreciate the help. It’s best if we catch these before they go up, but it’s always better to have people help us get it right. Thank you, and the link should now go to the BBC (not U.S. Soccer).

  3. cdkeli - Mar 12, 2014 at 12:04 AM

    This kid has never been an American and never will be. It’s about time the US started raising, training, and growing their own players and not continue looking to recruit from other countries. If the US doesn’t have the guts and desire to guide and develop real talent properly then they should continue to play only those games they’ve so conveniently invented for themselves at home that nobody else knows or cares how to play. Then they can continue to delude themselves by declaring themselves “World Champions” at something,,,sheeesh, what hubris!!! It’s like the spoiled rich kid that will only play in his backyard cuz he gets beaten up on the street.

    • mdac1012 - Mar 12, 2014 at 9:17 AM

      “not continue looking to recruit from other countries. ”

      Do you mean like other countries do? England with Januzaj, Spain with Diego Costa, Italy with Giuseppe Rossi. Do you mean like those countries who have successfully recruited or attempted to recruit talent from other countries?

      And what sports are you referring to that we conveniently invented? Basketball, Baseball, American Football? Are those sports nobody cares about worldwide? You might want to get your facts straight.

    • Scott Kessler - Mar 12, 2014 at 2:17 PM

      Germany: Klose and Podolski are Polish, but play for Germany. Ozil was able to play for Turkey, but chose to play for Germany. Khedira was able to play for Tunisia, but chose Germany.
      Japan: Gōtoku Sakai was born in NYC, plays for the Japanese national team.
      Italy: As mdac1012 said, Giuseppe Rossi, an American, plays for them. Thiago Motta played for the Brazilian national (didn’t get capped because it was an under-23 squad in the Gold Cup, which isn’t an official competition for Brazil) before joining the Italian national team.
      France: Algerians have long been an integral part of the French national team, from the youth level through the senior squad.
      Spain: As mdac1012 said, Diego Costa, who represented Brazil in friendlies previously, is now a starter for the Spanish national team. They saw a major need at striker and filled in with one of the best in the world at that position right now.
      Mexico: The Mexican senior squad capped an Argentine striker just last year.
      England: Don’t forget that the English goalkeeping situation was so bad at one point that capping Alumnia was an actual option.
      Netherlands: Bruno Martins Indi, who is becoming a mainstay in the senior squad’s 23-man roster, was born in Portugal and moved to the Netherlands while in his academy days.
      Belgium: Anthony Vanden Borre, born in Zaire. Christian Benteke was also born in Zaire, his family emigrating during Mobutu’s reign.

      Those are the players I thought of off of the top of my head in major European countries. There are plenty more around the world.

    • Southern Standard - Jun 3, 2014 at 10:36 PM

      That’s not a relevant option yet. Won’t be until we get our coaching up to speed with the rest of the world. Need evidence? Just look at the US men’s national team going into the World Cup. There’s a reason these players were picked over some of the players available from the same age group who — I might add — failed to qualify for the London Olympics. Only player off that team was Mix Diskerud. At this moment in time — won’t be the case forever — we lack the ability to develop world class players on a consistent basis.

      Look at the rest of the world. They recruit outside of their own countries. Touch of ignorance in that statement. We won’t have to do this forever, but right now it’s a great option.

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