The U.S. men’s national team has had its share of victories when it comes to recruiting dual nationals. Right-back Sergino Dest and midfielder Yunus Musah both saw extensive playing time at the 2022 World Cup after making the difficult choice of which country to represent.
The USMNT’s biggest recruiting coup of all might have happened on Tuesday, though.
Striker Folarin Balogun, on loan at Ligue 1 side Stade de Reims from Premier League giants Arsenal, pledged his international future to the U.S. by filing one-time switch with FIFA. He could have played for Nigeria or England, the latter of which he represented at youth level. (Balogun also logged minutes for the U.S. U18 team under then-U.S. U20 manager Tab Ramos.)
What makes Balogun such a prize catch is the position he plays and the form he’s in. While in recent years the U.S. has increased its quality at positions like defender, central midfield and on the wing, the center-forward position has been a glaring hole in the depth chart.
Right now the position is manned by solid, but not spectacular options such as Norwich City ‘s Josh Sargent, Ricardo Pepi, who just finished a loan spell at Dutch side Groningen, Antalyaspor’s Haji Wright and FC Dallas‘ Jesus Ferreira. The lackluster play of Wright and Ferreira, in particular, at the World Cup revealed just how much of a weakness the position is for the USMNT.
Balogun could change all of that. He has enjoyed a scintillating club season on loan, scoring 19 goals in league play, which is tied for fifth in Ligue 1. Along the way he has shown immense skill in terms of finishing, taking players on and linking up with teammates, combined with the ability to ride challenges from opposition defenders. And there’s more.
“I think in terms of being on the field, obviously [Balogun] makes great runs,” Ramos told ESPN. “He sacrifices for the team, so he will pressure the ball. He will do all of the things that a team environment requires on and off the field, so I think he’s a full package.”
That skill set — one that is more complete than any other forward in the USMNT pool — could have a knock-on effect for teammates like Christian Pulisic and Giovanni Reyna. That duo, as well as other wingers like Brenden Aaronson and Timothy Weah, are often the target of persistent fouling from opponents. The respect level from opposition defenders toward Balogun could create a bit more space for U.S. wingers and central midfielders to maneuver.
And what of the existing complement of forwards? At the least it would demand that they raise their respective games.
Pepi is just 21, and has his career on an upward trajectory again after scoring 12 goals for Groningen, this after struggling with Bundesliga side FC Augsburg, who still hold his contract. There is still time for him to hone his game further. Sargent recaptured some goal-scoring form in the English Championship with 13 goals, although he did spend considerable time as a winger with license to tuck inside. Ferreira and Wright, despite their club successes, would appear to be the odd players out.
Granted, Balogun’s arrival isn’t a guarantee of anything. The U.S. Soccer Federation still has to hire a coach after all, and it remains to be seen how Balogun would fit in the new manager’s system. The onus is still on his teammates to get him the ball in dangerous spots, something the U.S. struggled with at the World Cup.
The more dangerous players a team has on the field, though, the better off it will be. Balogun’s arrival does precisely that. — Jeff Carlisle.
The view from France
The only reason why Balogun was not nominated for Ligue 1’s Best Young Player of the Season award is because he turns 22 in two months’ time. The Arsenal loanee is slightly too old for the prize — Lyon‘s Bradley Barcola and Rayan Cherki, Monaco’s Eliesse Ben Seghir, Montpellier‘s Elyi Wahi and PSG’s Nuno Mendes are 20 or under.
However, there is an argument that he could have been part of the senior Ligue 1 Player of the Season race, alongside PSG’s Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi, Lens‘ Lois Openda and Seko Fofana and Lille‘s Jonathan David. With 19 goals and two assists in 34 league games (31 starts), Balogun has been Reims’ best player, Ligue 1’s revelation of the season, and one of the best players in the league, period.
To say that we saw it coming would be a lie. Even at Reims, no one could have predicted a season like this. He arrived in the Champagne region on loan from Arsenal (without an option to sign permanently) at the start of August, having not had a preseason with his new teammates. Yet, under then-Reims manager Oscar Garcia, he adapted quickly and scored in his first game, away at Marseille on Aug. 7, off the bench.
The following game, against Clermont, he started, scored again and never looked back. He scored against Marseille (both home and away), Lens (home and away), PSG, Monaco and managed a hat trick against Lorient in January.
More than the goals and his finishing ability, the most impressive attribute Balogun shows is his maturity. His intelligence and awareness is great, his first touch always has a purpose, while his runs are smart and well-timed.
This season in Ligue 1 has proved, if needed, what a talent he is. He deserves a chance to shine internationally too. — Julien Laurens.