HARRISON, N.J. – If you’re a US national team fan desperately hoping to see prospect Gedion Zelalem in action, this weekend’s match between the New York Red Bulls and Arsenal is a must-watch.
Zelalem is expected to play a role on Saturday when the Red Bulls host Arsenal in front of an anticipated sellout crowd at Red Bull Arena (5 pm ET, ESPN2). What kind of role the promising 17-year-old midfielder will have is unclear, but Gunners manager Arsene Wenger intends to use him in some capacity in Arsenal’s first stateside match in 25 years.
"He will play on Saturday," Wenger told reporters on Thursday. "Gedion has the qualities that I believe are very important to give in the States because the national team I've seen [is missing them]. He's a creative player and he can create a spark, an opening with his pass, with his vision through the eyes and if he manages to build up his physique and his qualities, he can be a very important player. Let's hope he will do it."
Another person of note to echo those sentiments is New York striker Thierry Henry. An avid Arsenal supporter after spending a chunk of his career at the world-renowned club, Henry is well aware of Zelalem’s talent and confident that the youngster can prove to be the real deal in due time.
"Everybody knows him. Quality, good on the ball, great vision," said Henry, Arsenal’s all-time leading goal scorer. "Everybody's talking about him. It's not an easy place to break into the first squad, Arsenal, but he has the quality and the right boss to make sure that he can do it.
“Hopefully for us – as an Arsenal fan – he can perform and be a great player for us.”
While Zelalem does not have much professional experience, he has been highly touted and scouted by USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann in a continued effort to secure as many dual nationals as possible.
Born in Germany to Ethiopian parents, Zelalem is not currently eligible to play for the US. Zelalem’s father is reportedly in the process of finishing his US citizenship, which would make him eligible for the national team once completed.
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Zelalem’s current focus, however, does not appear to be on national team selection. Instead, the midfielder with a first-team contract is trying to break into the Arsenal’s stacked lineup.
Wenger believes that is still a ways off but believes Zelalem can ultimately live up to his immense potential.
"I honestly think he has the talent to become a quality player, but that will be decided in the next two, three years because he has to show that he has the mental level required to be a top player, competitor," said Wenger. "Today, it's too early for him to play for us, but I would say in one year we will know more about him. Maybe if it all goes well in six months, but just now, he's not completely ready to start in the Premier League.
"But he's with us and he practices with us a lot and we have high expectations for him."
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by e-mail at Franco8813@gmail.com.