NEW YORK – The scene was set for a transformative day in the careers of a number of young players. And Mother Nature got the memo.
As afternoon gave way to evening, Incheon, South Korea was sundrenched: 75 degrees with a light breeze and not a cloud in the sky. And as the United States prepared to open their U-20 World Cup campaign, optimism was everywhere.
Things were supposed to be different on May 22, 2017 for Gedion Zelalem. Instead, a day that should have been yet another mark on his ascent ended in a devastating injury, and the beginning of a nightmarish recovery.
“Soccer is not as straight forward as you think it is growing up,” Zelalem told MLSsoccer.com in a wide-ranging interview in July. “There are a lot of ups and down, there are injuries. I’ve learned a lot.”
The then-Arsenal youth product, already dubbed the next Cesc Fabregas, would eventually miss a year-and-a-half, thwarting his progress through the Gunners' ranks and costing himself nearly two years of development.
“It killed me,” US U-20 head coach Tab Ramos said. “The last thing I want on the U-20 national team is someone to leave hurt. I always have the hopes of the players coming in, doing great then having a better career. … I think he would have worked at Arsenal if not for that injury.”
Now, Zelalem is still working towards regaining full fitness and confidence at Sporting Kansas City. It’s been a long road, one with many more twists and turns to come.
'Living in a movie'
Born in Berlin to Ethiopian parents, Zelalem's early youth career was scattered across few German clubs before he mvoed with his family to the United States in 2006. Zelalem’s obvious natural talent made him a standout player on whichever pitch he kicked the ball around, including at the Dallas Cup, one of the country’s premier youth tournaments.
It was there Zelalem and his teammates discovered an Arsenal scout would be watching him.
“It’s funny, the first game we won 8-0 when he was there,” Zelalem explained. “I was looking over and he was on the phone, he left early because the game was too easy. He came back when we played a better team, and I played well again, which gave me the trial at Arsenal.”
Immediately, Zelalem enjoyed success at Arsenal. His pure technical ability and quick mind were perfect for their possession-based ethos. He excelled and was a surprise inclusion on the senior side’s preseason squad to Asia in 2013. Then 16-years-old, Zelalem grasped the opportunity with two hands.
“It was surreal,” Zelalem said. “I saw the first-team players, I was star struck. I saw Arsene Wenger, I was starstruck. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought I was living in a movie.”
Just as he had in various youth teams, Zelalem looked right at home with the senior side. That fall, he’d make his debut with the Arsenal first team in a competitive match, though not before a few injury issues, a recurring element in Zelalam’s story. Those issues kept him out most of the fall, after he was named to the matchday squad for a Premier League game and was expected to feature in a League Cup game not long thereafter. In January, he made his anticipated debut in an FA Cup match.
His star continued to rise, reaching a crescendo in American circles when he was naturalized as a US citizen.
“It was really cool, Twitter was blowing up,” Zelalem recalled with a smile. “I didn’t really know what was happening — for me I was just playing the game, It was unbelievable. The coolest part was when I got citizenship from the US and ESPN tweeted that I got citizenship. That was pretty cool.”
Zelalem’s next stop was the 2015 U-20 World Cup, where he was named to the team shortly after receiving American citizenship and despite being eligible for the next tournament two years later. He quickly became a mainstay in that team, too, starting four of the side’s five matches.
“Gedion is simply the most technical player I’ve ever had on the youth national team,” Ramos said. “Really easy on the ball, can get out of trouble. I saw someone for, at that time, he was really special and different than anyone we ever had.”
Two years later, he was one of the most hyped players in South Korea, with a number of German clubs interested in signing him from Arsenal. Such a move would pave the way for the vital next step in his career.
Instead, his tournament was over almost as soon as it began.
Zelalem went down in the first half of the United States’ first game with an ACL tear.
“It was tough. I really envisioned that tournament—“ Zelalem paused. “I was part of the team that got to the quarterfinals. To not be able to do that, it was hard mentally. The injury itself was a bit of a disaster with how the rehab went and stuff. But, I got over it.”
American teammate Brooks Lennon, who as a Liverpool academy player frequently faced Zelalem in the youth Premier League, recalled the impact Zelalem's injury had on the team.
“I just remember him going down, I knew it wasn’t good,” he said. “He was in a lot of pain, I was worried about him. It was our first game and we were devastated to lose him.”
The ACL tear was just the beginning for Zelalem. The recovery and rehab didn't go smooth. Six months after the initial injury, as he began to run and get closer to returning to training, things still didn’t feel right. So, he went and saw a specialist. That specialist told him he’d need another surgery which would keep him out even longer.
What he thought was light at the end of the tunnel was just a cruel mirage, it was back to square one.
“I was obviously bummed out," Zelalem said. "But in a way, I was kind of happy because I knew something was wrong with me, but we didn’t know what it was."
Time to move on
Missing out on two years of development at a club like Arsenal, with a huge transfer budget and vast academy, doomed the young American in terms of his progress through their setup.
“I knew it wasn’t going to happen at Arsenal pretty much the beginning of last season,” Zelalem said. “I could feel it. They were playing the younger guys, you could sense it around the players. I accepted it.”
All the while, Zelalem had been on Sporting Kansas City’s radar.
“I put a marker in my calendar, probably nine months out based on his injury,” SKC director of player personnel Brian Bliss said. “It popped up, I dug into it and saw what was happening—he had to go get another surgery. It was going to be another three months before he got back on the field. So I put another marker in my calendar.”
Not long after, SKC wrapped up a deal for Zelalem, who knew Bliss from his work with the U-20 team. And it didn't hurt that the possession-based style of play that SKC coach Peter Vermes favors these days was similar to what Zelalem knew at Arsenal.
“He’s good. I really like him,” Zelalem said of Vermes. “He’s demanding, but he’s respectful. If you need telling off, he’ll tell you. I admire him, honestly, he’s a really good coach. He cares about all his players. Genuinely. You can just feel that with him, he always has your back.
Explained Bliss: “Playing for Peter’s not easy, you know. In a good way.”
His best position?
Ramos saw that with the U-20 side, too.
“Gedion and I had a number of conversations leading into that World Cup, I convinced Gedion to play the No. 6 role for that World Cup,” said Ramos. “I thought we would have the ball, and there’s no better player to have on the ball than Gedion. If he could buy into making a few defensive hard runs a game, and I promised him it wouldn’t be more than three or four runs, that he’d totally run the show. At first he was hesitant.
"Obviously he’s a No. 10, an attacking player, actually known for not defending much. You know those Arsenal players," Ramos added with a smirk.
“Honestly, I don’t know what my best position is anymore,” Zelalem said with a laugh. “It’s either No. 6 or No. 8. … My ceiling is higher as a No. 6 if I get it right defensively.”
The last time Zelalem permanently changed clubs was when he first joined Arsenal. It's been a long time since, when his family moved with him to England, something he continued to grow more appreciative of as the years go on. Now, six years later, Zelalem has grown up. He enjoys living in SKC with his girlfriend. "The downtown is really nice," he says.
He cooks, too.
“It just means you’re growing up," Zelalem said, adding he's an "okay" chef. "I still feel pretty young."
Still, a few years after that day in South Korea, Zelalem is searching for his top form again. It's coming, with every training session and game. His first season in SKC hasn't been easy, making nine MLS appearances so far and another six starts for Swope Park Rangers in USL, working to recapture his untapped potential.
“I’m just trying to get fitter and fitter,” Zelalem said. “First half, I feel like I’m bright and good on the ball, then I get really tired. If I get the fitness aspect right, I can be a big player for this team.”