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Is Gedion Zelalem the perfect project player for NYCFC?

The German-American midfielder has reportedly already signed with the Blues. Could he be the answer they need in the middle of the park?

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at FC Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: This article was mostly written before it was announced that Keaton Parks had potentially rejoined the club. There is a little tidbit regarding that news below the original story.

The fact that New York City FC is still without a head coach heading into 2020 has been the talking point for supporters and pundits in the lead-up to the fast-approaching preseason and the opening rounds of the Concacaf Champions League. As it should be; a team is only as good as whoever is directing traffic on the training ground. And the fact that NYCFC is still without a manager as we have officially entered the new year is cause for concern.

Despite their management issues, New York City still have plenty of question marks when it comes down to the players they have at their disposal, especially within the midfield.

I’ll spare you the suspense — barring an injury or some impossible-to-refuse transfer offer from another club, Maxi Moralez and Alexander Ring will be the starting attacking and defensive midfielders, respectively, during the 2020 season. There is no denying that. The question remains: without Keaton Parks or Ebenezer Ofori to fill that key box-to-box role, who will NYCFC employ to be it’s No. 8?

One might argue that the Boys in Blue might already have the key to that lock in their system today. Homegrown signings such as Justin Haak and Tayvon Gray both have experience as holding midfielders, whereas Tony Rocha became a late bloomer in 2019 and showed prowess in the box-to-box role, especially as a late substitute. You even have a player like Juan Pablo Torres who saw little of the pitch outside of a stint at right back in the opening rounds of the U.S. Open Cup.

You could also argue that James Sands could fill in at the No. 6 while Ring becomes the holder and yada yada yada... the point is, you could argue that NYCFC — with or without new additions — has the personnel to perhaps solve this issue in-house.

Recently, however, a new name has emerged as a potential solution. Meet midfielder Gedion Zelalem!

As embedded above, several sources have indicated that Zelalem is not just being targeted by NYCFC, but possibly has already signed. For those unaware of the young midfielder, let’s give you a quick refresher course.

Zelalem was born in Germany where he played academy football with the likes of Hertha Berlin. Following the death of his mother, Zelalem and his father immigrated to the United States before settling in Washington D.C. There, Zelalem played for a plethora of youth teams before catching the eyes of English giants Arsenal in 2013.

Following a little over a year in the Gunners’ academy system, Zelalem signed a professional contract with Arsenal in 2014. From there, the young midfielder with spend a few years out on loan with stops at Rangers (Scotland) VVV-Venlo (Netherlands). Gedion would also make his first caps with the United States’ U-20 team. Despite having success on the international circuit with the Baby Yanks, injury issues plagues Zelalem and he was unable to crack into Arsenal’s first team.

In 2019, Zelalem would break away from Arsenal and make a move stateside, signing a contract with Sporting Kansas City in March. Despite being a relatively hyped signing, Zelalem would once again struggle to break his way into Peter Vermes’ starting lineup, making just 9 appearances for SKC and an additional 7 with their reserve team Swope Park Rangers (who have recently rebranded and will be known as Sporting Kansas City II effective immediately).

Following the 2019 season, SKC declined their option on Zelalem, effectively making him a free agent.

Now, if you were to read that back, I wouldn’t blame you for having your reservations in regards to signing a player who many would consider a bust. I, however, believe that NYCFC signing Zelalem is a very good move. Here’s why.

For one, he’s still young. Zelalem will be turning 23 in a few weeks and still has a little ways before he hits his athletic peak. With the right coach and the right system, Gedion still has plenty of room for growth.

Another cool thing about Zelalem is that we are still unsure as to what his best position is on the pitch. According to his Transfermarkt profile, Zelalem mostly features as a holding midfielder with reps at both attacking mid and defensive mid in the past. In his own words, Zelalem sees much more of a future at the No. 6 position should he be able to properly build upon his defensive attributes. Once again, with the right manager, Zelalem should be able to properly develop his game in the midfield to find his true calling. And with talent like Alexander Ring and James Sands around him, he’s got plenty of cover while he figures things out.

Anyone who has seen Zelalem play before knows there is talent there. And where there is talent, there is also potential.

January 4 update

The biggest question regarding Zelalem’s signing, however, is not whether or not he has talent or some endgame-level untapped potential. The question is whether or not NYCFC need him.

If recent rumors are to be believed, then star box-to-box midfielder Keaton Parks has rejoined New York City on a permanent basis. And if that’s the case, it’s only obvious that he will be NYCFC’s starting option moving forward.

As previously mentioned, City’s midfield has quite the depth if reports of Parks’ purchase rings true, given that you have young talents like Haak and Sands as well as solid hands like Tony Rocha behind him. And if Juan Pablo Torres factors into this season, it’s even more full.

Is Zelalem’s upside worth the displacement of another?