The world remembers the one-time Arsenal wunderkind. New York might be his last shot to prove it should.
Six years ago, Gedion Zelalem had the world at his feet—or so everyone thought.
A German-born American, Zelalem was being hailed as the next big thing not only in American soccer but in the world, too. At 16 he was already knocking on the door of Arsenal’s first team, the heir apparent to Cesc Fàbregas. Arsène Wenger was licking his lips at the prospect of Zelalem becoming a mainstay in his squad for years to come. “Remember the name,” blared The Guardian.
Zelalem had yet to play his first professional minute.
Fast forward the better part of a decade—through injuries, unsatisfying loan spells in lower leagues across Europe, and a grand total of four appearances for Arsenal—and Zelalem’s name is still remembered, just not how it was supposed to be. Last year, his star faded, he retreated to the United States only to wind up at Sporting Kansas City’s USL affiliate, Swope Park Rangers. In November his option was declined.
That’s how, two weeks shy of his twenty-third birthday, Zelalem arrived at New York City Football Club. In a move first reported by The Outfield‘s Christopher Jee, the former United States youth international is NYCFC’s first new player announced under coach Ronny Deila. The news comes on the eve of the club’s preseason in Florida, with games against Corinthians and Palmeiras scheduled this week and a CONCACAF Champions League tie looming next month.
But after all these years it’s fair to ask: Who is Gedion Zelalem—not the must-buy prodigy from Football Manager and FIFA, but the player he became—and what does NYCFC see in him?
The Pilkington Connection
Before he was supposed to solve Arsenal’s midfield problems, Zelalem had already bounced around a bit. He spent time at a few academies in Germany as a kid before his family packed their bags for the United States. Zelalem landed in Maryland and earned a spot with the pro-pipeline youth club Olney Rangers under coach Matt Pilkington, who now heads NYCFC’s U-19 team.
Pilkington’s Olney Rangers produced not only Zelalem but a whole pack of pros including future U.S. internationals in Portland Timbers forward Jeremy Ebobisse and Minnesota United wingback Chase Gasper. In 2016 Pilkington joined NYCFC’s academy and soon took charge of the U-19s, coaching them to back-to-back national titles while training future first-teamers in James Sands, Justin Haak, and Tayvon Gray.
Pilkington has prepped players for the kind of leagues Zelalem was once expected to star in. He coached Gio Reyna, who’s currently flirting with Borussia Dortmund’s first team at 17, and oversaw the development of Joe Scally, who became NYCFC’s first player to achieve the academy-to-first-team-to-Europe trajectory when Borussia Monchengladbach signed a lucrative deal that will send him to Germany in 2021 for $2 million to $7 million, depending on performance incentives.
Like everyone else, Pilkington once drooled over Zelalem’s potential. “He dribbles like Iniesta and he passes like Xavi,” he said in 2014, not long after his brightest prospect moved to Arsenal. “I’ve thought like that for the past few years but I’ve been wary about saying it. I don’t worry now.”
Then things took a turn. Following a much-publicized courtship by USMNT coach Jürgen Klinsmann, Zelalem made the switch from German youth teams to the United States. Just 34 minutes into the first game of the 2017 U-20 World Cup in South Korea, playing alongside Tyler Adams and Josh Sargent, Zelalem tore his ACL. The injury changed the trajectory of Zelalem’s career. It kept him off the field for more than a year, costing him vital development time and cementing his place on Arsenal’s U-23 squad, a has-been that never quite was.
How He Fits at NYCFC
With Keaton Parks returning to the midfield next to Alex Ring, new sporting director David Lee can afford to take a flyer on a creative, vaguely Parksish backup. Zelalem’s total compensation last season was $78,000, low enough for the reserve roster, where NYCFC will stash him in hopes of polishing him into a useful first-team player.
At first glance, there’s a timidness to the way Zelalem plays. He’s slick-footed and when given space he can create moving forward. You can tell he’s intelligent; there’s a clear idea with his passes. At the same time, there’s too often a sluggish, disinterested manner to his play, like a caricature of Mesut Özil minus the World Cup or any meaningful first-team minutes at a top-tier club.
There’s also the question of his position. Zelalem has variously been pegged as a box-to-box guy, an attacking mid (according to his former U.S. youth coach Tab Ramos), and even a defensive midfielder (according to himself). “Honestly, I don’t know what my best position is anymore,” Zelalem told MLS in 2019. “It’s either No. 6 or No. 8. … My ceiling is higher as a No. 6 if I get it right defensively.”
That complicates things a bit. NYCFC currently has a logjam of young players waiting behind Alex Ring. James Sands has been projected as a defensive midfielder by many who question whether he has the physicality to play center back beyond MLS. Justin Haak is being groomed for the same position, and Juan Pablo Torres is still trying to figure out how he can reclaim whatever spark got him a chance in Belgium two years ago.
In short, don’t expect Zelalem to start on opening day. He tallied a whopping nine appearances for Kansas City last year, with little to show for his 463 minutes. At Swope Park Rangers, he played 537 minutes across seven USL matches, scoring one goal. The most memorable part of his American club career so far might be his teammates refusing to pass to him.
At this point, Zelalem is a buy low (really low) prospect, but that won’t stop the American soccer community from dreaming. With his career in steady decline, there’s still a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, a reunion with Pilkington can help Zelalem rediscover the old magic. ❧
Image: Jasper Johns, White Flag