“I spoke to some of the players I’ve played with like Jeremy Ebobisse who gave me an insight about this club,” Zelalem told reporters at his introductory press conference. “They play a passing game which suits my style, and it’s a great city as well. The MLS is growing every year, so it’s a very attractive league and attractive club as well.”
The midfielder, who came through Arsenal's academy and made his professional debut for the Gunners before loan spells at Rangers and VVV-Venlo, has yet to hit the heights projected just a few years ago.
Zelalem had two surgeries in the span of eight months after rupturing his ACL. One surgery was to repair the ACL, the other to clean out scar tissue. After returning back to training with Arsenal last September, he saw the writing was on the wall regarding his future at the club, and sought out a fresh start.
“I was at Arsenal for six years,” Zelalem said. “I had two loans at Rangers and VVV-Venlo, unfortunately it didn’t work out. I don’t think the injury helped me being out for two years, so when I did come back I kind of had an idea already of where my career was at with Arsenal.”
So how did he end up at Sporting KC? It was down to Sporting KC technical director Brian Bliss, who Peter Vermes credits with getting the move done.
“I dropped him on our discovery list back last year in June or July, thinking about his return and recovery,” Bliss told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s always a positional need for us, so I kept him on the list for a long time. We sought him out in January and felt there was real traction for something to get done. We worked on it a couple of months and were able to get it done.”
Sporting paid no transfer fee for Zelalem, Bliss confirmed.
“Because he’s out of contract with Arsenal at the end of June, so with the minimal amount of time left it was really a negotiation more between us and the player. It was not so much Arsenal and us, really because there was no leverage for them.”
Gedion Zelalem is in the building! 🔷🔷🔷 pic.twitter.com/pUdggU3lTA— Sporting KC (@SportingKC) March 11, 2019
Bliss and Zelalem were familiar with each other thanks to their time together for a couple of camps and cycles with the U-20 USYNT.
Zelalem’s passing ability in the middle is one of his most touted attributes, and it’s certainly something that should fit in well with Sporting’s system. However, he’s comfortable playing anywhere for them.
“To be fair I feel comfortable everywhere,” Zelalem said. “But I would feel more comfortable playing in one of the two [midfield spots], in the 4-3-3. I feel that I have tendency to go forward, but I can play the [No.] 6. I played the six with the U-20’s when I got injured, and I was quite comfortable there as well. But I like to create, create chances, and score goals. Scoring goals is one of the things I want to add to my game.”
The only other question is how fit he is, and how soon he'll suit up for his new team.
“The short term is going to be seeing where he is fitness-wise and all that, and then we’ll kind of build him from there,” said Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes. “The good thing is he’s been in an atmosphere of training every day for the last six months, which is great.”