When Freddy Adu signed with D.C. United in 2004, the fourteen-year-old Potomac prodigy quickly made a name for himself playing with people twice his age. Seven years later, new talent has emerged in Bethesda, and word has quickly spread that an Arsenal-bound soccer player is starting at midfield for the Walter Johnson Wildcats.
After training in London with the English Premier League club Arsenal this summer, WJ freshman Gedion Zelalem will sign with the team’s amateur program upon turning 16 in 2013. Zelalem said he can be offered a professional contract as early as age 17.
As a German citizen of Ethiopian descent, Zelalem is free of the legal barriers that England’s strict guidelines present for foreign players. Because of his European citizenship, Zelalem won’t face any issues with his contract since he is not considered a foreigner.
Zelalem started playing soccer at the age of five and grew up in Germany playing for Hertha Berlin’s academy, a team in the German Bundesliga, a professional association in Germany. After moving to the United States in 2006, Zelalem played with the MSC United and Bethesda Soccer Club before joining the Olney Rangers, his current club team, as well as the varsity team at Walter Johnson.
Arsenal scouts discovered Zelalem at the Dallas Cup, a well-known tournament that takes places every April in Dallas, TX. Shortly after, the scouts contacted Zelalem’s coaches and decided to fly him to London for summer training.
Zelalem spent 10 days in London, practicing for several hours every day with the Arsenal youth team.
“[The pace of the training] was really fast, but made it that much more exciting,” Zelalem said. “At that level, you work a lot more on technical skill than physicality.”
Arsenal became Zelalem’s favorite team after he got a chance to interact with members of the first team, Zelalem said.
“Even though I didn’t get to play with them, I got to eat lunch with [Mikel] Arteta and [Robin] Van Persie, two of my favorite players, every day at training,” Zelalem said.
With entry into a career with Arsenal, Zelalem will continue an ongoing trend in the Bethesda area of jumping from the amateur to the professional level. He follows Whitman boys soccer state champion Jonny Mehrez (’11) who plays for Norwegian soccer club Moss Fotbalklubb.
Zelalem Woldyes, Gedion’s father, said Gedion’s ability to react quickly, along with his knowledge of the game, make him an exceptionally gifted player.
“He really understands that soccer is about team work, and every time he gets out there, he can immediately read the field and play with a lot of confidence,” Woldyes said.
WJ midfielder Arik Moe said that Zelalem’s composure on the ball and ability to set up goal-scoring opportunities makes him a great asset to the Wildcats.
“He is very hard to get the ball from, and his moves always seem to work,” Moe said. “I havn’t seen anyone complete passes as smoothly and effectively as he does.”
Walter Johnson coach Mike Williams said that Zelalem’s sleek foot-skills and capability to control the tempo of the game make him the most sophisticated player he has seen in the area.
“By being able to slow the pace or pick it up at a moment’s notice, he is able to lull teams to sleep, catch them off guard or keep them chasing the ball without being able to get a hold of it,” he said. “Playing for a professional team will groom those skills, and help him mature as both a player and a young man.”