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

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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.

La Liga releases schedule: First El Clasico coming in December

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It’s Christmas in July for fans of La Liga Friday as the Spanish league published its schedule for the upcoming season.

Defending champions Real Madrid travel to Deportivo La Caruña on August 20, the opening match of the season while its rival Barcelona hosts Real Betis.

As it’s La Liga, the first date most fans searched for was the first El Clasico of the season, and the biennial battles between Real Madrid and Barcelona will take place on December 20 and May 6, with Real Madrid hosting the first match.

The first match comes just ahead of the Spanish winter break, while the second match comes at a busy period at the end of the season, where both teams will be hoping to still be competing in the UEFA Champions League.

Other interesting matches to keep an eye on in the first few weeks of the season include Real Madrid hosting Valencia in week two, the Barcelona derby between Barca and Espanyol in week three and Atletico Madrid taking on Sevilla in week six.

Here’s a look at this year’s La Liga schedule.

Conte: Costa “situation was very clear” in January

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At this point, there is no doubt Diego Costa‘s future lies away from London and Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte broke his silence on the Brazilian-born Spain international striker, saying he’s been ready to move on from Costa since January, when Costa and Conte had a disagreement following a big-money offer from Chinese club Tianjin Quanjian during the winter transfer window.

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“I don’t like to talk about players who are not here but the only thing I can tell you [is that] in January, the Costa situation was very clear, for the club for him and his agent,” Conte told reporters Friday. “For me the situation is closed.”

It’s an amazing turn of events after Costa scored 20 Premier League goals in Chelsea’s title-winning 2016-2017 season, including 14 goals through the end of December. But after falling out with Jose Mourinho a year earlier, the same issue happened again under Conte, with Costa proving much less effective down the stretch.

But Conte and Costa were able to put their differences aside on the field, photographed multiple times hugging after wins, as well as after winning the title.

Costa is reportedly now agitating for a move back to his former club Atletico Madrid, but the Spanish club’s transfer ban until the next window complicates matters. In a World Cup year, would Costa be willing to sit out half a season just to leave Chelsea?

If Costa’s time in the Premier League is up, he’ll go down as one of the league’s best pound-for-pound goalscorers. He scored 52 goals in 89 Premier League appearances, with seven more cup goals in his three-year spell at Chelsea.

And if he is gone, defenders across the Premier League will sure be happy to wave goodbye.

Sparta Prague signs France midfielder Rio Mavuba

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PRAGUE (AP) Sparta Prague says it has signed France midfielder Rio Mavuba to a three-year contract.

The 33-year-old Mavuba comes from French club Lille, which he joined in 2008. Before that, he played for Bordeaux and Spanish club Villarreal.

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Mavuba was on the France team at the 2014 World Cup.

He is the 10th player signed by Sparta after Italian coach Andrea Stramaccioni took charge in May.

Mexico 1-0 Honduras: Pizarro strikes early to put El Tri in Gold Cup semifinals

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Mexico had little trouble dispatching Honduras as El Tri won 1-0 in Glendale, AZ and eased into the Gold Cup semifinals.

Just four minutes into the game, Mexico took the lead as they got Honduras on its heels, with Rodolfo Pizarro sticking the ball in at the far post at the end of a scramble. Jesus Duenas carved a ball through the defense, and while Elias Hernandez whiffed on the tap-in, Pizarro was right behind him to finish the chance.

Mexico settled in after scoring, while Honduras tried to out-muscle El Tri, with the latter receiving a pair of yellow cards in the first 45 minutes. There were precious few other chances throughout the first half, with Honduras completely incapable of creating anything in the attacking half.

Mexico continued to dominate out of the halftime break, but they lost Monterrey midfielder Jesus Molina in the 65th minute with discomfort, replaced by Chaka Rodriguez. The best moment for Honduras as they chased the game late came in the 78th minute as Jose Corona made a spectacular save when substitute Alexander Lopez nearly scored directly from a corner. They came close again in stoppage time after a set-piece as Alfredo Mejia scuffed a shot agonizingly wide.

Honduras ended their Gold Cup without a single goal scored. They technically defeated French Guyana 3-0 in the group stage, but that came on the typical forfeit scoreline, whereas the actual game played ended in a 0-0 draw.

Meanwhile, Mexico will take on Jamaica in the semifinal in a rematch of last tournament’s final.