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.