There have been some truly excellent American soccer players through the years, but the United States has never had a star player on one of the world's leading club teams. The winds are changing, though...and there could be an American player lining up with the best of the best sooner than fans expect.
In the mid-90's, Claudio Reyna looked destined to become a world-class midfielder...but although he shined when healthy, his career was ultimately held back by injury. Brian McBride, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey all played well in the English Premier League, but never excelled for a top team. Donovan's failure to break through with Bayer Leverkusen in Germany is still a blemish on his career, and Dempsey's spell with Tottenham Hotspur (which not everyone will agree is even an elite club) was a dismal failure.
Tim Howard is arguably the closest thing America has had to a global star - his performance in the 2014 World Cup cemented his world-class status, and his club team, Everton, is rarely far from challenging for trophies. Still, a rough spell with Manchester United (one of the richest and most successful clubs in the world) marred his early career, and Everton's financial struggles prevent them from joining the ranks of world soccer's elite.
In the summer of 2013, English Premier League team Arsenal (which finished fourth last season, but also won the FA Cup, England's second-most prestigious domestic trophy) made a surprising announcement. A 16-year-old American named Gedion Zelalem, who only recently joined their academy, would accompany the senior team on a preseason tour of Asia.
Zelalem, born in Germany to Ethiopian parents, lived in Germany until his mother died in 2005. He moved to the Washington DC area with his father soon after, and having played for two youth academies in Germany, quickly caught on with Olney Rangers, a traveling club team.
It was during a club competition in Dallas five years later that Zelalem caught the eye of Arsenal scout Daniel Karbassiyoon, who instantly knew he'd stumbled on something special. Zelalem was flown out to London to participate in summer training with Arsenal...and 10 days later, the only team to complete an English Premier League season undefeated offered him a spot in their academy.
Zelalem was fast-tracked into the under-21 squad, where he drew rave reviews for his vision and passing ability. Still, it came as a shock when Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger included the 16-year-old in his 24-man team for the club's 2013 preseason tour.
No one expected much out of Zelalem during the tour - maybe he'd get a cameo appearance at the end of a game, and a fun story to tell his friends back home.
Then, Zelalem came on at halftime against an Indonesian All-Star team. In the 63rd minute, he casually sliced an impossible pass through the defense with the outside of his foot, right into the path of an onrushing teammate...and the entire stadium did a double take. Arsenal ultimately scored five goals in the second half.
Zelalem played in all four games during the tour, and in under 180 minutes of action, he compiled a YouTube highlight reelBack to the Soccer Newsfeed