Although Gedion Zelalem has been a U.S. citizen for less than two weeks, he’s already being dubbed the future of American soccer.
It’s a daunting title for a 17-year-old central midfielder still seeking his first Premier League appearance with Arsenal, or even FIFA approval to even be considered for a national team spot.
What makes Zelalem a symbol of hope for a nation coping with life after its greatest player, Landon Donovan, is in fact his nationality.
Born in Berlin, the teenager is just another young prospect to side with the stars and stripes over the reigning world champions, Germany.
Earlier in 2014, Julian Green, an 18-year-old American-born winger playing for Bayern Munich (and currently on loan at Hamburger SV) also chose to play for the U.S., despite five appearances with the Germany U19 squad.
Green went on to score a late goal in a 2-1 extra-time loss to Belgium in the knockout stages of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil this past summer.
The new American Dream, or at least the new trend, has been tapping into abundance of German talent and recruiting them to represent a national side eager for relevancy in international football.
Since taking over the U.S. national team in 2011, Jürgen Klinsmann, who was a part of the 1990 World Cup winning German-side and also coached his country at the 2006 tournament, has emphasised in scooping into the country’s rich “melting pot” of nationalities to get the best results. Recently, that’s meant plucking players from either German origin or club teams.
While the German youth academies continue to receive their deserving praise, Klinsmann has found talent, but not German-good talent, and has invited them to play for an American team begging for more options.
Even this has become somewhat of a new sensation in the U.S. At the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, Villareal (and current Fiorentina) forward Guiseppe Rossi chose to play for Italy rather than America, despite being born in Teaneck, New Jersey. Ultimately, Rossi wasn’t selected to the Azzuri 23-man squad, ignoring the premier goal-scoring threat he would’ve been for his home country. Perhaps players have seen the path the American-Italian took and have instead opted for the safer, more realistic opportunity of international competition.
In 2014, nine individuals with some sort of German connection made U.S. team sheets. The World Cup roster featured Green, John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Timothy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Fabian Johnson (1899 Hoffenheim/ Borussia Möchengladbach) and Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04).
Following the tournament, Borussia Dortmund II winger Joe Gyau made his first senior-level cap, while Alfredo Morales (FC Ingolstadt 04) and Bobby Wood (1860 Munich) made international appearances in 2013.
Perhaps Zelalem isn’t America’s next prodigy—which is a fair possibility given his age and lack of experience—but Americans see him as another face to a growing movement engulfing the country.
In a nation where soccer has always been an afterthought behind American football, basketball, baseball and arguably hockey, there’s been a quiet youth revolution for more involvement in the world’s most popular spot. European clubs are setting up soccer schools – a cynical marketing ploy perhaps, but maybe there is a chance that new talent will be unearthed.
English Premier League side Everton has introduced “Everton America,” a “player development pathway” that will hopefully produce college soccer scholarships or professional trials and contracts.
Barcelona opened its “FCBEscola Florida” in August, designed to find talent between the ages of 6 and 13, eventually leading kids to compete in Barcelona, Spain.
Bayern Munich announced in November that they would also establish youth academies scattered around the U.S. in an effort to find potential players to go on trial in Germany, with Philipp Lahm, Thomas Müller and Bastian Schweinsteiger for inspiration.
There’s a long history of Germans migrating to the U.S. throughout history. Now it’s happening on the football field as well.