The 2016 AT&T MLS All-Star game (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, UniMas, TSN, RDS) will, as always, offer fans the chance to see the league's top players face off against a European powerhouse gearing up for its next season. This year, though, it also provides a look at a highly-anticipated young prospect for the U.S. national team: Arsenal FC's 19-year-old Gedion Zelalem, who is looking to catch on as a regular in north London after spending last year on loan in Scotland's second flight with Rangers FC.
Zelalem, who made one appearance in FA Cup play and one in the UEFA Champions League with Arsenal before his loan to Rangers, is still young and unproven at the top level. Still, his potential — and the chance to have a U.S. international playing for one of England's top clubs — made him a prize when he chose the U.S. over two other countries vying for his international services.
Here are three things you need to know about him:
He's gifted, solid, but not always flashy.
Zelalem is not the sort of attacking mid who makes brilliant runs through a defense to score. He can get past defenders — he wouldn't be at Arsenal if he couldn't, after all — but what he does best is distribute, especially in traffic. Zelalem has excellent pitch vision and short-range touch, both essentials for a top-level distributor.
Zelalem can pick out teammates in scoring positions, too. he recorded seven assists in his first 16 appearances across all competitions for Rangers last year, though his production fell off later in the season.
Need a precise pass to switch the point of attack, maintain possession, dictate the tempo of a match? That's what he does very well. If he keeps it up, he should be able to make the leap from youth international to the senior team.
He'll need to get stronger, though, to withstand the physicality — especially on the road — that playing in CONCACAF entails. Skill only carries you so far on those Central American nights when everyone in an opposing jersey is getting in every available shot.
He wasn't born here, but he did a lot of growing up here.
Zelalem was born in Berlin to Ethiopian parents in 1997 and started playing youth soccer at the age of 5, but moved with his father to Maryland in 2006 after his mother's death in 2005. Through 2013, while living in the U.S., he played as a German youth international up to the under-17 level.
Everything changed for Zelalem that year, when Arsenal scout Danny Karbassiyoon started tracking his progress. Karbassiyoon liked what he saw — and especially liked that Zelalem had a European passport, vastly reducing the number of hurdles the London club would need to overcome to sign him.
By the end of that summer, Zelalem, then just 16, was signed with Arsenal. He made his senior debut in January 2014, coming on as a sub in an FA Cup victory over Coventry City. After the following 2014-15 season, in which he came off he bench against Galatasaray in a Champions League victory, he was loaned to Rangers — first through December, and then for the remainder of the season.
His USMNT hopes almost got put on a 5-year hold.
Zelalem became a U.S. citizen in December 2014, being granted automatic citizenship when his father was naturalized because Zelalem was still under 18 — less than a month shy of his 18th birthday. He still holds a German passport, and also would have been eligible to play for Ethiopia — whose coach and foreign minister both made hopeful public overtures — but expressed his desire to make a one-time switch and represent the United States.
Despite the provisions of U.S. immigration law, he faced a 5-year residency waiting period before FIFA would grant him eligibility, under a rule designed to prevent countries from rushing the naturalization process. US Soccer successfully applied for an exception, citing the seven years Zelalem lived in Maryland before moving to England. He has now represented the U.S. at the U-20 and U-23 levels, including at the U-20 World Cup in 2015.