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Sciaretta: Let's Cool It On The Gedion Zelalem Hype

After rumors and pranks and lots of speculation, it's finally a done deal: Gedion Zelalem, 17, is a U.S. citizen and reportedly wants to play his international soccer for the United States. Um, now what?
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
December 30, 2014
12:54 PM
THE LONG-AWAITED NEWS finally arrived: Gedion Zelalem has become an American citizen and is now both eligible and reportedly willing to play for the United States internationally. And just like that, the next “great” American soccer player was born.

Zelalem, 17, has been a standout with the Arsenal academy and has even made his first team debut—most recently playing in a Champions League game after Arsenal had secured passage to the next round. Born in Germany to Ethiopian parents, he lived for several years in Virginia before moving to London.

The details of his progress toward American citizenship were always murky, with some, including myself, wondering how it was possible. But now he has finally obtained it and American fans are celebrating—perhaps a bit too much.

Too many times the fan base is seeking to anoint a savior for the U.S. national team but we’ve been down this road before. In fact, there is a long list of American players who have played on the youth teams of big clubs before. They don't always turn into superstars.

Frankie Simek was the teenage captain of Arsenal’s reserve team from 2003-2005 and even managed a first-team appearance in a League Cup game—and that Arsenal team was significantly better than the team is now. And today? At age 30 Frank Simek was last seen playing for Sông Lam Ngh An F.C. in Vietnam.

Kenny Cooper was at Manchester United’s academy and Jonathan Spector even managed to earn a few first-team minutes under Sir Alex Ferguson. In 1997, John Thorrington became the youngest American player at the time to sign with an English Premier League club when he joined Manchester United at the age of 17; he spent two seasons within the club's academy before moving on.

Benny Feihaber played in the Champions League for Hamburg at age 21. In 2011, the hype machine (elevated by his dual-national status) was on Fabian Hurzeler who was the youngest player on Bayern Munich’s U-23 team and had once captained German’s U-17 national. As of now he is a 21-year-old on the reserve team of a bad 1860 Munich team and has yet to make a professional appearance anywhere.

No discussion of overhyped American players would be complete without talking about Freddy Adu. The player once anointed—recklessly—the next Pele is presently in soccer limbo after parting ways with yet another club—this one in Serbia. For all the criticism of his career, when Adu was 18 he signed for a very good Benfica team and even scored a few nice goals—which is more than Zelalem has done so far.

At this very moment, there are American players playing for the youth teams at Tottenham, Boca Juniors, Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Swansea, Everton, Southampton, West Ham, Hoffenheim, Freiburg, Barcelona, Borussia Monchengladbach, Atletico Madrid, Villarreal, and Cruzeiro.

Those are all good clubs and then, of course, MLS academies are improving and most American players will develop there and some of them will be very good. Bottom line, is that it is a numbers game. A national team program needs to have many, many good prospects because most won’t make it —even those at big clubs.

It was only nine months ago when Julian Green decided to play for the United States and sent fans into euphoria. As 2015 approaches, we are seeing that developing into a Bundesliga regular is hard for Green now that he is on loan at relegation-battlers Hamburg.

The point of this isn’t to say Zelalem isn’t going to be good. He may turn out to be terrific. But it would be great to see the fan base not react in a manner that suggests all of its hopes are tied to one unproven teenager simply because he has done well at youth levels while at a big club.

A good approach for Zelalem would be to focus on the U.S. U-20 World Cup team this summer along with some of the top prospects of his age group— which includes other dual nationals such as Rubio Rubin, Emerson Hyndman, Paul Arriola, Junior Flores, Andrija Novakovich, Matt Miazga, Joel Sonora, and Cameron Carter-Vickers. Without meaningful pro experience, that seems to be the level he is at right now.

Real progress will occur when the U.S. can regularly produce a solid number of prospects with its own resources and not rely on finding players who were born and raised elsewhere. The United States has made remarkable strides in that area and that is when the battle will be won, because the true strength of a soccer country centers on the talent it develops, not recruits.

Yes, Zelalem developed here more than most of the other German-Americans currently in the talent pool, and that is a positive sign. But it still doesn’t justify the excessive celebration of the fanbase.

The hype machine needs to be turned down. Expecting so much from a 17-year-old only will lead to a disappointment for fans. And it could adversely affect other young players in the program and, most importantly, Zelalem himself.

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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