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.