National League alum Gedion Zelalem on a quick rise at Arsenal
FRISCO, Texas (March 7, 2014) — Two years ago, Gedion Zelalem was manning the midfield for OBGC Rangers (MD) in the US Youth Soccer National League. Now, the 17-year-old is considered one of the best young talents at Arsenal FC of the English Premier League.
A quick rise through Arsenal’s youth ranks resulted in Zelalem seeing his first action for the senior team when he came on for the final 20 minutes of the Gunners’ 4-0 FA Cup win over Coventry City on Jan. 24. Early glimpses of his potential have Arsenal fans excited about the young midfielder’s future and multiple countries hoping he dons their colors for international play.
Zelalem started playing soccer in Germany, his place of birth, but it was in the United States where he spent many of his formative years. During that time, he developed his skills while playing at clubs in Maryland — just north of Washington, D.C. The midfielder finished his American youth career by playing on coach Matt Pilkington’s OBGC Rangers side for two seasons, which included play in the National League against the nation’s top teams.
“Playing against teams from different areas helped him because each team was a little bit different in their style of play,” Pilkington said. “The National League games were always at good facilities. There was no more than one game per day, so it allowed us to maximize what we were doing in each game.”
Zelalem joined OBGC just before the team began its Under-15 season. He and the Rangers went on to put together two of the best offensive campaigns in National League history — scoring 19 goals in 2010-2011 and a record 22 in 2011-2012 as an Under-16 squad.
Pilkington was well aware of Zelalem even before the youngster began playing with his team. He said Zelalem, who played up a year when competing with Pilkington’s Rangers team, stood out right away at a very young age.
“One of the first times I saw him was at an indoor game. It was an informal league that we had for the players during the wintertime for the young age groups,” Pilkington said. “He was doing stuff on the ball, beating guys with a range of moves and skills. It was different to see a kid, so small at that point, go past players with his balance and dribbling being so good.”
Pilkington said Zelalem possesses a rare sense of what’s happening around him on the field, and he has a great understanding of the game. He said the midfielder also has good vision and the ability to pick out the right pass and complete it.
It was around the conclusion of the Rangers’ Under-15 National League season that Pilkington began reaching out to professional clubs about Zelalem. He said it was a bit disappointing at first, but he eventually got connected with a local Arsenal scout who kept in touch after going to watch Zelalem.
Several teams began to see Zelalem’s talent after a strong performance at the Dallas Cup, but Pilkington said it was Arsenal who recognized his talent from the start. And when the time was right, they asked Zelalem to train with the club in London.
“It’s great to see how quickly he’s gone through the ranks at Arsenal. I always knew he had the ability to play at the highest level, and he’s taken it upon himself to accelerate his development,” Pilkington said. “He has a maturity within the game to make the right decisions. The higher the level he’s played at — the faster the pace — he’s always been able to adapt to that very quickly.”
The Rangers’ coach said it’s a special gift for players to be able to raise their game to match a higher level of play. The fact that Zelalem has shown that ability is what has many fans in the United States hoping he elects to play for the U.S. Men’s National Team, should the chance arise. There are even petitions to President Barack Obama to speed up the process of Zelalem’s citizenship.
However, it’s still unclear whether the midfielder wishes to play for the United States, Germany or Ethiopia — the latter two being the countries in which he holds a passport. Pilkington said he communicates frequently with Zelalem and that the 17-year-old “likes to reach out to his American roots” by talking with friends and former teammates in the States.
No matter what the future holds for the National League alum, Pilkington believes Zelalem is where he needs to be in order to have success.
“I think he’s in the right place right now,” Pilkington said. “Hopefully, he continues to develop and makes his way into the Arsenal first team on a more regular basis.”