The cautionary connection between Michael Owen and Gedion Zelalem
News this week that Gedion Zelalem has gained U.S. citizenship set fans certainly got fans of the national team talking. For Graham Parker, it triggered a walk down memory lane to the late 1990s.
I was in a hotel bar during a conference in Chicago in early 1997, when a Liverpudlian academic attending the same event began to regale me about a young kid who was just coming through the Liverpool reserves and was going to be "just amazing. Amazing. His speed, Graham ... and the finishing ... this kid is ..."
I put some of his damp-eyed enthusiasm down to the lateness of the hour and the level of his glass, but perhaps because we were far from home, and because I knew he knew his football, I duly filed the name "Michael Owen" away, where in other circumstances I might have forgotten it instantly.
It's now almost 18 years later, and every week I get an email from a mailing list I can't seem to get off. In these emails, the online blogging consortium Michael Owen is now signed with as a pundit send me his banal take on the sporting events of the day. It's usually something along the lines of, "Frank Lampard is a good player, who still has much to offer" or "Manchester United fans will not be happy if Louis van Gaal doesn't bring trophies." Yes, I am taking paraphrasing liberties, but no, not by much. As a free-speaking commentator, Owen sticks to the middle of the road like his hamstrings depend on it.
Given their relentless lack of meaningful opinions, the emails appear to come from some strange sporting purgatory where there are no actual events to truly respond to, just empty reminders that "Michael Owen" is still a name attached to a person.
There's something apt about this. As it unfolded, Owen's career always had a certain sense of suspended animation about it -- with a feeling existing of "Whatever happened to?" while he was still scoring goals in front of us.
The first dramatic intro of his career, defined by the opening 16 minutes of the World Cup second-round game vs. Argentina in St Etienne in 1998, set a level of expectation that made subsequent events appear as pale facsimiles. No matter what the actual level of his accomplishments -- and by the standards of most footballing careers those accomplishments were substantial -- somehow even a 2001 hat trick vs. Germany in Germany, which came three months after FA Cup-winning goals vs. Arsenal, always had a certain melancholy about them. No matter how special those other feats were, they each represented a step further from St Etienne and a kid bursting into the Argentine box brimming with potential energy.
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Owen was just playing his game of course and he did not ask for the degree of slowly souring expectation that sat on his shoulders for the rest of his playing career. That degree of expectation, when heaped on a young player, casts fans in particular and writers as well, in the position of helicopter parents: unable to enjoy the present because of a kind of anxiety about what it portends for the future.
Maybe you've guessed where I'm going with this. Gedion Zelalem, who has just become a United States citizen, has played only a handful of significant moments of professional football, is still growing into his body, and if yesterday's Twitter is to be believed, is either the American Diego Maradona or doomed to be much Freddy Adu about nothing.
Comments made by his manager, Arsene Wenger, in relation to the type of player Zelalem is, and how that type of player was arguably what was missing from the USA during the World Cup, have been extrapolated in some quarters to read as a suggestion that Zelalem should have been in Brazil instead of aging grandfathers like Julian Green. Meanwhile, instant counter-narratives have suggested the player is too definitively lightweight to ever do anything at senior level, and his failure to have played every minute for Arsenal this season prove the hierarchy don't actually think much of him.
In the USA, the particular type of expectation heaped on young players -- underpinned by the belief that until the country produces an individual global superstar, all systemic technical development has to be regarded as having failed given the notional talent pool -- routinely sets them up to be judged by impossible standards. It also arguably misses the point that if Zelalem ever does do anything memorable in a USA jersey it will be precisely because there's a workable crop of young players around him.
The generation of Joe Gyau, Rubio Rubin, DeAndre Yedlin, Green and, yes, Zelalem are shaped by a different global footballing context. As such, their possibilities for movement compared to even the culture one that shaped the generation of Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, et al should in theory rise and fall accordingly.
This "second term" of Jürgen Klinsmann's reign will rightly feature much more scrutiny on how well the technical director's attempts to overhaul the U.S. development system go, as much as what the same man does as head coach. There's a fair argument that if we want to place our weight of expectation anywhere, it should be on Klinsmann's shoulders and on how well he can raise the bar for all young U.S. players. It's a mandate he's asked for, after all.
And if that seems like too much unreasonable weight to heap on just one man, it's possibly no more weight than we might be already asking a teenager to bear as the latest potential "savior of US soccer". Leave the kid alone -- we'll find out soon enough.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.