SAN JOSE, Calif. – Gedion Zelalem isn’t sure whether he’ll stay with Arsenal or go out on loan this season, but there’s no doubt the young American is thrilled by the opportunity to pull on the red and white of the Gunners on Thursday against the MLS All-Stars.
“I watched all of them play when I was younger,” Zelalem told reporters Wednesday. “David Villa in the World Cup. [Andrea] Pirlo throughout his years as a legend for Italy and all the clubs he’s played for. … Clint Dempsey as well, an American legend.”
On Tuesday in his pregame press conference, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger confirmed Zelalem would play in Thursday’s AT&T MLS All-Star Game (7:30 pm ET; ESPN, UniMas, RDS, TSN2) and praised the 19-year-old midfielder as a “top quality” player.
Whether he’ll show that quality with Arsenal this season or later on down the line is uncertain. Zelalem spent the 2015-16 season on loan with Rangers in the Scottish second division, making 21 appearances (15 starts), but said on Wednesday that he’s not sure what his fate will be this campaign.
“I don’t know. I’m just trying to train hard every day and then see what comes,” Zelalem said. “After the tour, [I’ll] sit down with the boss and see what’s best for my development.”
“It helped me a lot playing in front of 50,000 every week. Just being a first-team player,” he added. “The big media [contingent and pressure] around Scotland is massive as well. I learned a lot. On the pitch as well, to play quicker and it helped me physically.”
It’s the physical side of the game that Wenger identified as an area for improvement as Zelalem looks to break into the first team and compete for minutes in the often rough-and-tumble Premier League.
"He might be a bit longer to mature because he is a little bit behind on the body structure," Wenger said. "But I’m sure he will be a great player who matures maybe a bit slowly physically. But overall, I’m convinced that he’ll have a great career.”
The wiry Zelalem knows he has to get stronger and improve defensively, but said he doesn’t spend too much energy worrying about whether a growth spurt is on the way.
“If I’m going to grow, I’m going to grow,” Zelalem said. “Eventually it will happen. I wouldn’t say it’s frustrating. It’s part of football. Everyone has their own little thing that they need to work on, and that’s one of them.”
Spurt or no spurt, there’s no doubt Zelalem’s ability on the ball makes him a special prospect, not just for Arsenal but for the United States national team, which he committed his future to in 2015 ahead of the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand.
US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann checks in from time to time via text, Zelalem said, and even wished him luck in Thursday’s match. To push his way into the US squad like fellow teenager Christian Pulisic, Zelalem knows he has to play – and progress – for Arsenal or in another first-team environment.
He believes he’s ready to show what he can do.
“I think I’m good enough to play in [the Premier League],” Zelalem said. “Just hoping to get that chance.”