Six years is a long time in sports. Six years is a career for a not-insignificant number of athletes. Six years ago, a very promising 16 year old midfielder from the US named Gedion Zelalem signed with Arsenal in 2013, and showed all the signs of becoming a really good player for Arsenal given a few seasons’ worth of development and growth.
Well, it hasn’t exactly worked out that way. After successful spells on loan at Rangers and in Holland, he ruptured his ACL in 2017, and his recovery has been long and arduous. He started playing for Arsenal U23’s earlier this season and has been playing OK, but he’s out of contract this summer, so it’s thought that Arsenal will want to get something for him rather than giving him a new contract and hoping he comes good.
And they have seemingly found a willing buyer in MLS club Sporting Kansas City. SKC is apparently in talks with Arsenal about signing Zelalem, and those talks are “progressing well”, which means, since the MLS season just started, he might be able to live what is literally nobody’s dream, to play alongside Graham Zusi, a lot sooner than the expiration of his contract in the summer.
MLS has a fairly Byzantine method of acquiring overseas players, called “discovery rights”, which means that every team can claim right of first refusal on a player who has expressed a desire to move to MLS. In short, if a player is not under contract to an MLS club or subject to any of MLS’ other assignment mechanisms, a club can file paperwork with the league to say “if this guy comes to MLS, we get first crack at him”. And yes, this means some MLS club probably has Cristiano Ronaldo’s discovery rights. And in this case, SKC hold Zelalem’s rights.
Discovery rights are essentially meaningless until a player decides to come to MLS, so in theory a club could put a bunch of big names on their discovery list; I know the list per team is limited in size, though, so it’s not like an MLS club can just submit a list of the 20 best players in the world and hope that someday they’ll come to the US.
If the club holding the discovery rights can’t come to an agreement with the player, or if another team is interested in signing a player whose discovery rights are owned by another team, the team owning those rights can sell them to any other team for $50,000 in general allocation money (what that is is a long story for another post), so it’s not like the player is bound eternally to the club holding his rights.
None of that really applies here, though - SKC seem to want Zelalem, and he seems OK with going there, so this should be as straightforward as an MLS transfer can be. MLS’ initial transfer window closes May 7, so there’s still some time to get this done.
Whenever it happens, it’ll be good to see Zelalem getting regular playing time again - he’s still young enough that he can carve out a nice career for himself, and even though I’m a Timbers fan I will admit that there are worse places to do that than Kansas City.