Folarin Balogun Is Exactly Who The USMNT Has Been Waiting For
2:21 PM EDT on June 20, 2023
The 2023 CONCACAF Nations League was no match for the pyrotechnic lunacy of the 2021 tournament, where the USMNT and Mexico met in the final and slogged through a revolting, perfect 129 minutes of soccer, though United States fans have cause to leave the second CNL final even more satisfied than the first. That's part result, part process. Winning even a fake trophy is better than not winning anything, and how could any fan not leave impressed with the two-part debut of the newest member of the program, Folarin Balogun?
Like Yunus Musah before him, Balogun came to the USMNT from the highest echelons of the England youth national program. USMNT fans capable of Googling "balogun where was he born" have pined for him to join the team since he distinguished himself as the jewel of Arsenal's youth teams three or so seasons ago, though his defection seemed less likely than Musah's (even though Balogun played four games for the U.S. U-18s back in 2018) for the simple reason that the young striker appeared to be on the cusp of a full England call-up this year. The hinge point of Balogun's international career came this past March, when Gareth Southgate named his first roster for the Euro 2024 qualification campaign and selected gambling-ass Ivan Toney over Balogun for the final forward spot.
It runs counter to a good deal of USMNT mythmaking, but the dirty truth that European dual nationals who choose the U.S. do so because they're choosing a safer path to regular playing time still holds here. Balogun wanted to be an England player, and if Southgate had named him in March, the U.S. striker spot would still be Ricardo Pepi's, more by default than anything else. But Southgate took a cue from Toney and bet on (sorry!) the Brentford striker, sparking a fun, stupid Instagram saga that made it clear which way the wind was blowing.
Immediately after he was named to the far less glamorous England U-21 squad, Balogun got passive-aggressive online, and dropped out citing a phantom injury five days later. That same day, he posted a seemingly innocent photo of himself hanging out in an SUV. An eagle-eyed U.S. fan noticed a partially obscured motto on the wall behind Balogun reading "HERE TO CHASE TAIL", and they were able to trace that back to Pup's Pub, which advertises itself as "Orlando’s first & ONLY full liquor dog park & sports bar!" Balogun then deleted all posts about England from his social media accounts, followed Christian Pulisic, and showed up at a Magic game and Yankees spring training.
In May, he formally committed to the US team, and he made his debut against Mexico in the Nations League semifinal this past Thursday. Debuting in a rivalry game is a tough ask, especially one with a guaranteed baseline level of violence. Balogun was good but not great against Mexico in the U.S.'s 3-0 win, though he showed his considerable abilities as a ball-winner and space creator at the striker position. The U.S. player pool is silly with those types of guys and short on bucket-getters, so Balogun's strong, goalless 75 minutes were solid but not necessarily mega-impressive. His Welcome to CONCACAF! moment came in the 68th minute, when he made a lung-busting 40-yard run to win the ball back from César Montes, prompting Montes to kick his legs out and draw a straight red card. Weston McKennie then came in to defend his new striker and fought like half a dozen guys and also drew a red card of his own. Balogun switched out with Pepi a few minutes later, and the game only further devolved after Pepi sealed the win with the U.S.'s third goal as Sergiño Dest and Gerardo Arteaga drew dueling red cards and left their teams to finish the game nine-on-nine.
Balogun said he was "shocked by the events" after the game, a state of awe that clearly did not affect his performance in the final against Canada. Even if Nations League is a make-work tournament for the best teams in this weak federation, it's still hotly contested by, well, the best teams in this weak federation, and so the USMNT's aggregate 5-0 win over Mexico and Canada is genuinely impressive. Both rivals played full-strength squads, and the U.S. was clearly better than both of them. After finding his footing against Mexico, Balogun was the best player on the pitch against Canada. He created the first goal from nothing by taking an unthreatening pass at the top corner of the box and dribbling around Scott Kennedy, drawing the corner that Chris Richards converted for his first international goal. Twenty minutes later, he ran on the inside shoulder of his defender, slowed down to get onto the end of a perfectly weighted Gio Reyna pass (Reyna was magisterial, playing like a man who knows he once again has to impress a coach his parents tried to blackmail out of a job), and kept his defender at bay while he smacked in a hard, unstoppable, first-time finish.
There's nothing complicated about that goal necessarily, merely a heady run, a little slip pass, and some muscle, but it's a true striker's goal, the sort that USMNT hasn't scored reliably for years. Balogun is a complete striker, with considerable dribbling, passing, and hold-up abilities, and all those parts of his game are used in service of scoring a ton of goals, all the time. He only had one against Canada, though he had another cleared off the line, he drew a bunch more corners, he had a reasonable penalty shout, and he dribbled past his man with Pulisician flair. Balogun was the second-leading scorer in France this year on loan for Reims, with 21 Ligue 1 goals, and he was so good that Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta is trying to hold onto him despite having a crowded forward rotation.
Ever since the USMNT reformulated itself around Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, and its trio of buzzsaw midfielders, the hole at striker has been a glaring one. Josh Sargent, Pepi, Jordan Pefok, Daryl Dike, Jesus Ferreira, and Haji Wright were all given real opportunities to seize the starting spot ahead of the last World Cup cycle, and no player really ran with their chance. Wright, a big, tall, nice, extremely limited player, scored the only goal by a striker at the World Cup and it was a sloppy one that didn't change the U.S.'s fate. The U.S. frontline created too many chances and the midfield won too many balls to only leave the tournament with three goals in four games. Balogun is a true-blue goalscorer, who can also do all the running and passing and ball-winning that made the Sargent/Ferreira-types useful for the team. He is exactly who the USMNT needs.