Bethesda, Md. resident and Olney Rangers standout Gedion Zelalem has signed a professional contract with English Premier League heavyweights Arsenal FC, according to multiple reports over the past week.
Earlier this month Zelalem spent almost two weeks training at the London club’s youth academy and while an Arsenal official last week told the Washington Post that he’s not yet been offered a contract, Zelalem himself confirmed that a deal has been reached via his facebook and twitter pages. On Monday, Arsenal fan blog Young Guns also reported that Zelalem will sign with the club when he turns 16 in January of 2013.
A playmaker with silky skills beyond his 14 years, Zelalem is of Ethiopian descent but was born in Germany, where his father sought asylum in 1990. The family moved to Maryland five years ago, where Gedion also spent time in the Potomac Soccer Association and Real Maryland FC systems before becoming a key cog in the talented Rangers side that reached the Under-15 boys final of the U.S. Youth Soccer Region 1 Championships in Lancaster, Penn. last month.
Coach Matt Pilkington's team lost a 4-3 overtime heartbreaker to New Jersey-based side SDFC Gauchos on that occasion, but their quality was unmistakable and eight members of the squad were invited to a national pool camp, including Zelalem.
But now it seems that even bigger things are in store for the 1997-age midfielder.
“He’s a very talented player...He’s got a few options going forward,” Pilkington told Potomac Soccer Wire. “He’s getting a lot of interest from scouts all over Europe. The Arsenal scouts have been to see him a bunch of times and decided to take him over for a 10-day trial with their academy.”
Former Arsenal player Danny Karbassiyoon, who now leads the club’s North American scouting operation, has been eyeing Zelalem for some time. He eventually prompted the attention of Steve Morrow, a retired Arsenal star who played and coached for MLS club FC Dallas before moving back to London to oversee Arsenal’s international partnerships and scouting network.
“Danny saw [Zelalem] a few times up in the D.C. area, and then he went down to Richmond and guested with a team down there when Steve Morrow was in town [for the Jefferson Cup in March],” explained Pilkington, an Englishman who starred at George Washington University during his college career. “And then we went to Dallas Cup and he watched three or four of his games, so they’ve seen him a bunch.”
Clearly his club coach believes Zelalem has all the tools to succeed at the highest level. Keen to maximize his young star’s abilities, Pilkington has arranged Rangers in a sophisticated tactical formation for their age group, using Zelalem in the same way that European champions FC Barcelona utilize Spanish international Xavi Hernandez.
“We kind of play a similar shape to Barcelona, a 4-5-1 that becomes a 4-3-3,” said Pilkington, who also praised Rangers’ Jeremy Ebobisse and Bruno Scodari after their Region 1 tourney run. “It’s an attacking formation for the most part. It just allows us to play attractive, fast soccer, on the ground, lots of passing, lots of moving. [Zelalem] plays in the more advanced [midield] role – very creative, great vision, very skillful. He has a lot of ability.”
U.S. National Team fans will be disappointed to hear that Gedion’s father, Zelalem Woldyes, is eager for his son to represent Germany, the country of his birth, at international level. Gedion is fluent in German and Woldyes remains deeply grateful to the European nation for welcoming him two decades ago.
But he would face a tough fight for a place in the German federation’s recently revamped youth system – so there may well be further twists in this tale.