America’s next top soccer star is a hotly run contest. It might not have a primetime cable TV slot, or Tyra Banks as host, but competition is fierce. Social media provides the judging panel, with YouTube clips and vines of a rabona or a Panenka from a US-born winger playing in a lowly European league enough to provoke a virtual frenzy – usually in the direction of Jurgen Klinsmann’s Twitter account.
Previous contestants have failed to fulfil their promise: most notably Freddy Adu, but also perhaps Jozy Altidore, and to a certain extent Landon Donovan (although admitting so might be seen by some as soccer sacrilege). Now the country’s soccer collective have their hopes pinned on two teenagers. Gedion Zelalem of Arsenal and Bayern Munich’s Julian Green are the vanguard of America’s not totally American next generation.
Zelalem (born in Berlin) and Green (born in Tampa but moved to Germany aged two) now find themselves at a pivotal juncture of their careers, with both players requiring first-team opportunities to hasten their development. And so with Green fresh from spending last season on loan at Hamburg, Zelalem is on the brink of a loan move of his own, by agreeing to join Rangers until January at least. But does a talent once described as possessing the ability to “dribble like Iniesta and pass like Xavi” belong at a higher level?
On first impressions, the Scottish Championship is not the most obviousplace for Zelalem to develop as the world-class player he hopes to become, but US soccer’s next great hope is hardly pitching up at Alloa Athletic or Greenock Morton. At Rangers, under new manager Mark Warburton – a refreshingly progressive and forward-thinking coach – Zelalem will receive a more fitting induction to the senior game than seems apparent.
The Glasgow club haven’t always been the best for developing wünderkinds. Ally McCoist’s side were a distinctly one-dimensional, hoof-and-hunt outfit last season, and had Rangers approached Arsenal for Zelalem this time last year, it’s fair to assume Arsène Wenger wouldn’t have been so willing to send the youngster north. Now, however, Rangers are a different team.
Under new ownership and management, Rangers – for so long a toxic headline – look like a functional soccer side again. While McCoist’s side was a mishmash of washed-up and worn-out names, Warburton’s team are dynamic, incisive and exciting – making them the perfect fit for Zelalem. Scottish soccer is better than is often credited, but it’s also true that at such a level the German-born USA youth international would be a shining star in a winning team – and nothing builds confidence and stature like winning. In soccer terms, a move would appear to suit all three vested parties.
A number of English Championship sides were reported to be interested in taking the 18-year-old on loan this season, although the player himself is thought to favour a spell in Scotland after visiting Rangers’ impressive Murray Park training facility for talks with Warburton on Tuesday. Wenger must make the right call on what is best for his young prodigy, with the allure of keeping Zelalem close by at a London club like Fulham surely strong.
And yet the Arsenal boss must also recognise the additional benefits of sending Zelalem – who has only made two senior appearances for the Gunners – to Glasgow. Perhaps more so than ever before, Rangers are expected to win every game this season, having missed out on promotion to the top-flight last term. Such pressure, and playing in front of crowds of more than 50,000 on occasion, can only serve the teenager well at Arsenal – where the mental demands of delivering Premier League can crush even the brightest of young talents. A loan spell at Rangers could in fact be the ideal education.
For Rangers, the benefits of securing a loan deal for Zelalem are clear. Warburton missed out on the signing of Scott Allan – their marquee summer target who joined Celtic last week – but the Arsenal teenager might be an even better fit, as a speedy, sharp-witted, adaptable midfielder with impeccable technique. Of course, no one can completely safeguard the surefire success of a player – even one of such ability – but Zelalem is not short of ringing references from those who have seen him at close quarters.
“It won’t be long before he is ready [for the Arsenal first-team],” Jack Wilshere mused of Zelalem last year. “He sees passes that not a lot of players can, and he’s so comfortable on the ball. Even in training, he’s a nightmare to play against. He keeps the ball away from you and shields it. He’s not very big but he’s strong. He drifts in and out of players. Technically, he’s right up there. He can use his left and right and he sees so many passes.”
Such qualities have drawn Warburton to Zelalem, as he looks to build a side out of keeping with how soccer in Scotland is widely regarded. Scotland can be a challenging place for players of his mould – Spurs loanee Nathan Oduwa was lambasted by an opposition defender last week for having the audacity to attempt a piece of trickery – but Rangers would appear to provide Zelalem with a platform to vindicate some of his own hype. Glasgow might be the perfect home for America’s next top soccer star.
- This article was amended on Wednesday 19 August to clarify Julian Green’s loan arrangement with Hamburg.