With the teenage midfielder cleared to feature for the USA in New Zealand this summer, Under-20 boss Tab Ramos has some tough line-up decisions to make.
Aged just 18, the Berlin-born wonderkid has been the talk of the American soccer sphere ever since he emerged as a potential option for the States, before pledging his future to his adopted nation upon becoming a US citizen in late December.
The former German Under-17 international’s one-time switch was not a straightforward process, however, as he was forced to wait several months while FIFA deliberated over the paperwork.
With his status still up in the air up until this week, Ramos opted to name an initial 20-man squad for the approaching tournament in New Zealand, leaving one spot open in the hope that the Gunners starlet would be given the green light at the eleventh hour.
As the May 15 roster deadline approached, things were looking touch and go, with the Philadelphia Union’s Zach Pfeffer on call to take the final spot if no word came, but, with just 48 hours left, their patience was rewarded.
Zelalem will now form part of what looks like one of the strongest US Under-20 squads assembled in some time when the tournament kicks off on May 30, but the question remains as to how Ramos will use him in New Zealand.
Though he has made just two first-team cameos for Arsenal over the past 18 months, comparisons to Cesc Fabregas have prompted American fans to label the slick-passing teenager as the future fulcrum of their side, while Jurgen Klinsmann further raised excitement levels back in March after declaring that he could even walk straight into the senior squad.
With those expectations, most assume it to be a foregone conclusion that Zelalem will be in the starting XI come the opening group game against Myanmar, but things might not be so simple.
With Ramos planning to stick with a 4-4-2 formation, and several long-time squad members providing stiff competition for places, there does not appear to be an obvious spot to put the talked-up newcomer at present.
Fulham’s Emerson Hyndman – a creative midfielder in the same mould as Zelalem, is the team’s current engine and well-entrenched in the line-up at this point, while attack-minded options like Joel Sonora, Tommy Thompson, Bradford Jamieson IV and Rubio Rubin will be hard to leave on the bench.
At the same time, Ramos will want either Kellyn Acosta or Russell Canouse in the side as the defensive midfielder to balance things out, leaving some tough decisions ahead for the former US international.
It is a nice problem to have, however, and one which could well be solved over the coming fortnight while the team train in Australia ahead of the tournament, with the head coach himself sounding none too fussed about Zelalem’s potential role when speaking to MLSsoccer.com before heading Down Under.
“He's an attacking midfielder. He's a creative player,” Ramos said. “We have other creative players here, like [Boca Juniors'] Joel Sonora, like Emerson Hyndman, so he's in that type of mold. Maybe he plays a little bit more advanced than those guys, but I think it's just a matter of seeing over the next couple of weeks that we can fit all these guys together on one team and put them all on the field at once.
“I don't know that that can be the case. I don't know if we can fit them all together at once, but that's something we'll have to decide.”
A switch to a diamond midfield could be a possible solution but, regardless, with the Myanmar opener preceded by group games against hosts New Zealand and Ukraine on June 2 and 5, respectively, the US should be confident of making the knockout rounds.
From there, if the likes of Hyndman are clicking and the Zelalem integration proves a success, then tournament favourites Argentina, Brazil and Germany should all be watching their backs.