It seems the red tape rigmarole was apparently worth it; U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati confirmed via Twitter this week that Gedion Zelalem has successfully jumped through all the requisite FIFA hoops and may now, officially, represent the United States in international competition.
That was the easy part. Even if it doesn’t seem so.
Managing the 18-year-old Arsenal midfielder, who was born in Germany but moved to the United States when he was 9, now becomes the tricky part. U.S. under-20 manager Tab Ramos gets first crack; he wisely held a spot for Zelalem for the Under-20 World Cup, which begins later this month in New Zealand. The team has already gathered in Australia.
Fact is, the United States has a fairly splotchy record when it comes to dealing with its young soccer prodigies. Hype meets hope and the result has often been … bitter disappointment and, generally, something of a mess.
We appear to be getting better at dealing with the most talented of the young guns, but pockets of concern remain. And we certainly cannot ignore the hard lessons of the past, starting with the gold standard of poor handling, the sad case of Freddy Adu. Points to any of you if you can name Adu’s current playing address without the use of Wiki. And seriously big points if you can name all of his career stops.
Talk about failure at multiple levels. As I’ve said before, everyone shares blame on expectation inflation regarding Adu. Media, U.S. supporters, MLS clubs and the league office itself all built floats for the parade of glorification, all for a 14-year-old kid. Looking back on it, it’s all a bit embarrassing. And no wonder Adu’s career wandered so wildly off track; swoon over a kid who is just 14 years old and demonstrate at every turn how awesome we all agree that he is, and what did we expect?
Mistakes get repeated, even if they don’t rise to the Adu level. Remember young Danny Szetela, who was playing in MLS at age 17? He was anointed “all that” in some circles. Well, he’s 27 now and his career has topped out at domestic soccer’s second tier (although injuries had something to say about a career that wandered). He’s doing fine for the Cosmos, but that’s not where we expected this ballyhooed airship to land, now was it?
The list of near misses is long, those who accomplished “something” in soccer but never rose to internationally elite, a.k.a. the place many of us expected. For starters, let’s just toss out Eddie Johnson, Bobby Convey, Santino Quaranta, Sal Zizzo, Jonathan Spector and Eddie Gaven – and those are just the names that immediately jump to mind.
I mean, U.S. Soccer supporters are so “Charlie Brown kicking the football” on these things. We just won’t learn, will we? We are perennially in search of the next big thing, the young soccer savant who will guide us out the sameness, to the next level in the global game’s echelon. “Move over, Germany, Argentina and you others, our Young Skywalker has arrived!”
Hoping to find this redeemer isn’t what’s wrong here, especially when it comes to supporters, who aren’t the decision makers; it’s the way clubs, leagues and the national team leaders handle these guys. For instance, let’s all keep our eyes on young Bradford Jamieson at the L.A. Galaxy – although Bruce Arena is in charge of this one, and he’s wise enough to “get it,” sharp enough to understand how to keep the player himself and the rest of us in check on expectations.
Ramos seems to have his head screwed on pretty tightly in these matters; he seems to in pretty much all matters, in fact. The trouble might be at the higher level, where national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann has been guilty at times of sending mixed messages.
He has spoken of mistakes made in the handling of young players, such as the symphony of praise directed to Jack McInerney after his breakout early in the 2013 season. A year later, Klinsmann handed a World Cup spot to Julian Green, a man surely brimming with potential, but with no real skins on the wall when it comes to high-level achievement. When the young attacker’s career situation in Germany became seriously destabilized, there was Klinsmann again, calling him into the national team scene. Yes, there might be some psychological strategy afoot. Then again, it’s hard to not to see some mixed messages being sent about the best practices of handlin young talent.
Zelalem will be watched closely (and scrutinized) at the upcoming under-20 event in New Zealand. If he excels, well, that’s when the trouble could really begin. This is the greater U.S. soccer establishment’s next chance; let’s all try to get this one right.
Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk.
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