Wenger talks Zelalem, gets taste of U.S. obsession for potential international


For a player who’s made one senior appearance with Arsenal, Gedion Zelalem is getting a lot of attention. Among hardcore United States soccer fans, the 18-year-old has evolved from a curiosity into an obsession, with the German-born prospect occupying many dreams for the next World Cup cycle.

Born in Berlin to Ethopian parents, Zelalem spent much of his adolescence in the United States, where his father is on the path of citizenship. That status would give Zelalem the option of representing the U.S., a choice that’s developed into a fixation for the national team’s most-devoted fans.

Consider the beginning of this Q&A a symptom of that fixation. Sports Illustrated, given time with Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger and executive Ivan Gazidis, began its session asking about a player who, in Wenger’s estimation, probably won’t impact his first team until next year, at the earliest.

But here in the States, the players who’ll actually compete for England and Europe take a back seat. Mr. Wenger: Given our audience, we need to talk about Zelalem first:

SI: Let’s get this one out of the way for American fans … What can you tell us about [Zelalem]?

Wenger: … he’s the kind of player who could be of use to the United States. He’s in some ways the type of player the U.S. was missing in the World Cup …

SI: Is the potential there for Gedion to play for Arsenal [first team]?

Wenger: Right now, I don’t think he’s ready. I don’t think he’s ready in the next six months. Next season, I hope to say yes … The American fans can see him play on Saturday night.

There’s much more on Zelalem and non-U.S.-centric topics in SI’s Q&A, but the first question (and, the almost embarrassed concession which precedes it) says a lot about the hopes of U.S, fandom. While the pride we saw from fans during the World Cup hinted soccer has reached a new level, tomorrow remains in focus. Scavenging for signs the future can outshine the present, fans have seized on Zelalem as if he’s the top pick in the NBA draft. Only instead of bring chosen by the Cavaliers, he’s being picked by America.

It’s not exactly fair, and given how little we’ve seen from Zelalem, it may not be accurate. For all we know, Zelalem may  be the next Josh McEachran – a technically gifted 21-year-old Chelsea midfielder who has struggled after debuting with the Blues four years ago. While Chelsea fans hoped the England U-level standout would develop into a regular, the then-17-year-old has spent the last two seasons on loan with Swansea, Middlesbrough, Watford, and Wigan.

Still, this kind of optimism is natural. Most fans regularly overestimate their team’s prospects. Add in the nationalistic angle to Zelalem (the potential to actively choose the U.S.), and the zealotry is understandable. For most fans, hope is a defining part of their arsenal.

Right now, that hope is fueling a lot of attention, from SI’s coverage, to more quotes on Major League Soccer’s site, to the updates you see here (and here, and here). In time, however, Zelalem will make news for his soccer, and while that will only stoke U.S. hopes, it will also give fans more than nationality to fuel their obsessions.

As Wenger gives him more time, Zelalem the player will finally get his chance to outshine Zelalem the hope.

MLS Cup Playoffs: LA Galaxy 3-1 Real Salt Lake (video)

Los Angeles Galaxy defender Jelle Van Damme (37) congratulates forward Alan Gordon (9) for scoring against the Real Salt Lake during the first half of a knockout round MLS playoff soccer match in Carson, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
AP Photo/Alex Gallardo
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The game in 100 words (or less): The LA Galaxy are through to the conference semifinals of the MLS Cup Playoffs, where they’ll take on the Colorado Rapids beginning Sunday, for the seventh time in eight years with a 3-1 knockout-round triumph over Real Salt Lake at the StubHub Center on Wednesday. Alan Gordon put the home side ahead inside the first quarter-hour before RSL drew level seven minutes later, but Emmanuel Boateng bagged a quickfire brace to complete a pair of brilliant individual exhibitions of dribbling inside the penalty area. With Steven Gerrard unavailable and Robbie Keane only fit to feature off the bench, Bruce Arena turned to Gordon, who gave way to Keane early in the second half after picking up an injury of his own, to play the fulcrum of the Galaxy attack, and it worked to near-perfection during the opening half-hour. Landon Donovan started the game and played 87 minutes, providing the kind of defensive work rate that’s been missing up and down the flanks of LA all season. Sebastian Lletget put in a near-flawless passing performance while playing deep in midfield. Don’t look now, but those are the Galaxy’s biggest question of 2016, all just about answered as the playoffs begin. I won’t say, “I told you so” if/when they win MLS Cup 2016, but…

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

Three Four moments that mattered

14′ — Gordon finishes from close range for 1-0 — Landon Donovan -> Giovani dos Santos -> Alan Gordon. Just like Bruce Arena drew it up in preseason midseason last month this week this morning.

21′ — Plata converts from the spot after Morales’ dive — Javier Morales was angling for a penalty from the moment he entered the penalty area. All Emmanuel Boateng had to do was look at him, and Morales was going down.

26′ — Boateng weaves through to make it 2-1 — Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Boateng took advantage of some poor defending, and the Galaxy were back in the lead.

34′ — Boateng cuts inside, blows past his man, makes it 3-1 — There’s playing in top gear, and there’s having an extra gear that you rarely have to use because no one else on the field has it. Boateng falls into the latter category.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Emmanuel Boateng

Goalscorers: Gordon (14′), Plata (21′), Boateng (26′, 34′)

MLS Cup Playoffs: Toronto FC 3-1 Philadelphia Union (video)

Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC
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The game in 100 words (or less): 10 years later, Toronto FC are MLS Cup Playoffs victors. For eight seasons, the playoffs eluded them altogether. Last year, they were one-and-done in embarrassing fashion at the hands of their local rivals. In 2016, it was  their year — a proclamation we’d heard plenty times before — and so far, they’ve lived up to the hype. Wednesday’s 3-1 home victory over the Philadelphia Union in the knockout round gets the monkey off the Reds’ back, but more importantly, afforded Sebastian Giovinco, who bagged a goal and an assist on the night (his second straight game with such a line), 90 more minutes of game time after missing more than a month through injuries as the regular season wound down. After 270 minutes of action, the Atomic Ant looks sharp as ever, and destined to terrorize New York City FC, whom TFC will face in the conference semifinals, beginning Sunday.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

Three Four moments that mattered

15′ — Atlidore feeds Giovinco for 1-0 — The first playoff goal in TFC’s 10-year history. Poor goalkeeping, ball-watching defending, terrible touches, an overhead cross, and a strike off the crossbar. There’s a lot going on here. Watch it all right here.

49′ — Osorio slams home from the corner for 2-0 — The Union have been bad at defending set pieces all season, so is it at all surprising a set-piece gaffe effectively ended their season? No, it’s not.

73′ — Bedoya puts the loose ball home for 2-1 — Speaking of failing to effectively clear a corner kick, the Union were gifted a lifeline 15 minutes before full-time.

85′ — Altidore puts it out of reach, seals it for TFC — Ken Tribbet did not have the best night a center back has ever seen. His final blunder resulted in Jozy Altidore reclaiming TFC’s two-goal lead, and ending the Union’s 2016 season.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Men of the match: Sebastian Giovinco

Goalscorers: Giovinco (15′), Osorio (49′), Bedoya (73′), Altidore (85′)

Men In Blazers podcast: Mourinho’s Chelsea return; Bradley’s 1st point

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Rog and Davo break down Jose Mourinho’s return to Chelsea with Manchester United, another stumble for Manchester City and Bob Bradley’s first Premier League point.

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VIDEO: Altidore, Giovinco combine for TFC’s first-ever playoff goal

Sebastian Giovinco
Chris Young/The Associated Press via AP
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It’s been 10 years in the making, and Toronto FC finally have their first-ever goal in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

After failing to qualify for the playoffs in each of their first eight seasons, 2015 saw the Reds venture into the postseason for the first time ever, only to be thumped in the knockout round, 3-0, by their 401 derby rival Montreal Impact, of all sides.

This is the year, though, or so we’ve said and been told all season long. While it remains to be seen how deep of a run TFC can muster in 2016, they’ll always have the Jozy Altidore‘s terrible first touch; Altidore’s wayward second and third touches; Altidore’s overhead cross; and Sebastian Giovinco’s strike, all of which you can watch in all its hilarity glory below.

[ MORE: Power rankings — Playoffs edition | MLS Cup predictions ]