High school freshman lands future with EPL power Arsenal

Cameron Smith
Prep Rally

For the most part, Gedion Zelalem is like most other 14-year-olds, in as much as any German teen of Ethiopian descent living in the U.S. can be like any other teen. Yet, while the Bethesda, Maryland teen spends plenty of time worrying about homework and what to wear to school tomorrow, he is also occasionally preoccupied by much more unique concerns, like a future at one of the world's most prestigious soccer clubs, English Premier League giants Arsenal Football Club.

Walter Johnson soccer player Gedion Zelalem
Walter Johnson soccer player Gedion Zelalem

As first reported by the Washington Post's Steven Goff, Zelalem first attracted the attention of Arsenal's youth development system over the summer, eventually earning a trial with the club's academy. He stood out during a 10-day period at the club's London Colney training center, and legendary Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and the club's development staff were impressed enough that they pledged to give Zelalem a developmental contract with the team as soon as he turns 16 in January, 2013.

While Zelalem might face visa issues blocking such a move if he were solely an American, his European Union citizenship from being born in Berlin, Germany ensures that he can compete without reaching any prerequisite requirements once he turns 16.

"It's a dream for me," said Zelalem, who moved with his family to the United States from Berlin in 2006 and is a U.S. permanent resident but not a citizen. "I've always wanted it. I've gotten the opportunity, and I'm going to take it."

Like all prospects his age, Zelalem's signing is being made based on his potential. At the moment, he competes with the Bethesda (Md.) Walter Johnson High varsity squad and trains once a week with the Olney Rangers, a prominent travel club on the Maryland youth soccer circuit.

Zelalem's signing is also a strange one because of his skill set. Unlike most young prodigies who gain international scouting attention, Zelalem is not a prolific scorer. Instead, he relies on subtle movement and delicate passing which sets the tempo for his team's offensive sets.

Essentially, he emulates Barcelona midfielders Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, to similar effects on a smaller level: In each of Walter Johnson's 2011 games, Zelalem has registered an assist, but he has yet to score a goal.

That hardly discouraged Arsenal, which was alerted to Zelalem's talent by his travel team coach and Danny Karbassiyoon, the club's American scout who is based in Richmond.

Now, Zelalem is just 16 months away from a dramatic life shift and, potentially, an immensely profitable future in soccer if things pan out the way he hopes they will. Until then, there's plenty of homework and high school soccer pitches ahead.

"He's a special player," Olney Rangers coach Matt Pilkington told the Post. "The balance, the vision, the ideas -- you don't see that often at his age."

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