Disappointed but far from disconsolate, USA’s players trooped out of Auckland’s North Harbour with the words of their coach echoing from the press room. “I’m really happy with them,” said Tab Ramos, having watched his side lose to Serbia on penalties after a goalless quarter-final. “Looking at the tournament overall, I’m satisfied.”
Gedion Zelalem could see the wisdom in these sentiments. It was, however, another of his coach’s remarks – “I do think we could have achieved a little bit more here” – that really struck a chord. This Arsenal youngster is nothing if not ambitious, after all, and will not settle for modest hopes and expectations where the US is concerned.
“I think we’ve done well, but we also want to reach higher,” he told FIFA.com. “We’re not satisfied just getting to quarter-finals. We want to be reaching finals and winning tournaments.”
There are, of course, plenty of teams aiming to make that same seemingly small, but notoriously difficult step. Yet Zelalem believes there is enough evidence in the American game to suggest that the transition from competitors and also-rans to genuine title contenders should not be far off.
“It’s getting bigger and better all the time,” he said of football in the US. “Major League Soccer definitely is and, at national team level, we’re also improving. Players are getting better on the ball and we’re starting to see a new style of play, keeping the ball and passing and moving.
“We’re definitely progressing. How much potential do we have? A lot. I think at the next World Cup you could see us do really well.”
For some, Brazil 2014 is still too recent a memory to begin focusing on 2018. Yet Zelalem does so unashamedly and says that his experiences at the FIFA U-20 World Cup – which has produced 32 winners of the senior equivalent – have only made him more determined to book his spot.
How much potential do we have? A lot. I think at the next World Cup you could see us do really well. Gedion Zelalem on USA
“It’s a great tournament,” he said of the U-20 finals. “You look at the likes of [Lionel] Messi playing in it back in 2005 and you know the history it has. He won it though and I wanted to do the same!
“Being here with the boys has been great and it’s definitely given me a taste for playing in these kind of events. I think there’s a few guys in this squad, myself included, who could be in the senior squad for the next World Cup and that has to be our aim.”
Zelalem’s ice-cool penalty as the shootout reached a heart-stopping climax certainly suggests he will have no problem in handling the high stakes of a World Cup. Indeed, the 18-year-old’s description of his emotions while making that long, dreaded walk to the spot suggests either a maturity beyond his years or an unnatural capacity for calm
“I was pretty relaxed because you know with penalties that some people miss them – it’s just the way it is,” he said. “I would have been sad if I’d missed, but you know it happens. I didn’t feel much pressure – I just put it in the back of the net.
“It’s a shame it worked out the way it did because it was an even game. I thought we both deserved to go through. We had a spell where I felt we could have won it, but they also had their spells too. And once it gets to penalties you know it’s up in the air.”
The same could be said of Zelalem’s immediate future, with the path to first team football at Arsenal – the club he joined in 2013 – still blocked by the likes of Santi Cazorla, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. But if you think he is ready to lower his sights, think again.
“I’m going to go back for pre-season and try to get into the first team and play some games,” he said. “If I can do that, great. If not, I’ll look to get out on loan somewhere. It’s a dream come true to be at a club like Arsenal and I want to get into the first team this season, play minutes and start matches. I have high expectations of myself and if I was to be starting week in, week out, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Such self-confidence, allied to ability, can go a long way. Whether it can take Zelalem to his targets for next season and onwards to 2018, only time will tell.