CARSON, Calif. -- Tab Ramos says Gedion Zelalem's addition to his US roster for the coming FIFA U-20 World Cup is an important step toward the future of the US national teams. Now he needs to figure out how the 18-year-old Arsenal midfielder fits into his lineup.
“I think it means a lot,” Ramos, the US Under-20 head coach, said Thursday afternoon at StubHub Center following the squad's final training session before departing for Australia ahead of the May 30-June 20 tournament in New Zealand. “He's certainly someone we want to have involved with out program, someone that Jurgen [Klinsmann, the full US national team coach] has already spoken about, so I think this would be a good introduction for him."
Zelalem was added to the roster after FIFA on Wednesday approved an exception for the Berlin-born teen to a rule that would have required him to live five years on American soil before he could be eligible to play for the US.
Zelalem, whose parents are Ethiopian, moved to Maryland with his father following his mother's 2005 death and was discovered by Arsenal while playing for Olney Rangers at the 2011 Dallas Cup. He received US citizenship last December, but FIFA initially ruled he would not be eligible to play for the US without meeting a residency requirement.
The US filed for an exception, based on Zelalem's formative years in Maryland. Zelalem previously had played for Germany's U-15, U-16 and U-17 teams and also is eligible for Ethiopia.
Ramos was happy to receive news that he wasn't sure would be coming.
“This has been a long process,” said Ramos, a former US national team star who played professionally in Spain and Mexico before joining his hometown MetroStars -- now the New York Red Bulls -- for MLS's first seven seasons. “I just kept the door open in case it did [happen], but we were literally down to the last day for us. Because we travel [Thursday night] to Australia, so we wanted to make sure that we were all set with the group.
“I know the final roster deadline for FIFA is on Friday, and we'll be in the air for that, so everything had to be decided today. It worked out yesterday, so we've got him on board, and had he not been on board, obviously, we already had a backup plan.”
Had Zelalem not received the exemption, Philadelphia Union midfielder Zach Pfeffer would have received the roster spot.
The US opens Group A play May 30 against Myanmar in Whangarei, then faces New Zealand on June 2 and Ukraine on June 5, both in Auckland.
Zelalem, who has been likened to former Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas by both his youth team coaches and the English press, has made two first-team appearances for the Gunners, in an FA Cup victory 16 months ago over Coventry City and a UEFA Champions League win last December at Galatasaray.
“He's an attacking midfielder. He's a creative player,” Ramos said. “We have other creative players here, like [Boca Juniors'] Joel Sonora, like [Fulham's] Emerson Hyndman, so he's in that type of mold. Maybe he plays a little bit more advanced than those guys, but I think it's just a matter of seeing over the next couple of weeks that we can fit all these guys together on one team and put them all on the field at once.
“I don't know that that can be the case. I don't know if we can fit them all together at once, but that's something we'll have to decide.”
First, Zelalem must integrate into the team. He'll join the group in Australia.
“That's always difficult with national teams, but it's the case for all the players, pretty much. So as far as that's concerned, I don't think it's a problem,” Ramos said. “I just think we see it as a good opportunity to include him in our program and so that he can be with us into the future.”