Folarin Balogun is exactly who the USMNT has been waiting for

The 2023 CONCACAF Nations League was no match for the pyrotechnic frenzy of the 2021 tournament, where the USMNT and Mexico met in the final and battled through an outrageous, perfect 129 minutes of soccer, although USA fans have reason to leave the second CNL final even more satisfied than the first. It is part result, part process. Winning even a bogus trophy is better than winning nothing and how could any fan not be impressed by 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 England’s national youth program. USMNT fans able to google “balogun where was he born” have longed for him to join the team since he excelled as the jewel of Arsenal’s youth team three or so seasons ago, though his a defection seemed less likely than Musah’s (although Balogun made four appearances for the U.S. Under-18s back in 2018) for the simple reason that the young forward appeared to be on the verge of a full England call-up this year. The turning point in Balogun’s international career came last March when Gareth Southgate named his first list for the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign, choosing gambling robber Ivan Toney over Balogun for the final forward spot.

It goes against a lot of USMNT mythmaking, but the dirty truth that European dual nationals who choose the US do so because they choose a safer path to regular playing time still holds here. Balogun would be an English player and if Southgate had named him in March, the American striker spot would still be Ricardo Pepis, more by default than anything else. But Southgate took a cue from Toney and banked on the (sorry!) Brentford forward, sparking a hilariously silly Instagram saga that made it clear which way the wind was blowing.

Immediately after being named in the far less glamorous England Under-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 American fan noticed a partially blurred motto on the wall behind Balogun that read “HERE TO CHASE TAIL” and they were able to trace it back to Pup’s Pub, which advertises itself as “Orlando’s first & ONLY full liquor dog park and sports bar!” Balogun then deleted all posts about England from his social media accounts, followed Christian Pulisic and showed up to a Magic game and Yankees spring training.

In May, he made a formal commitment to the US team and he made his debut against Mexico in the Nations League semi-final last Thursday. Debuting in a rivalry game is a tough ask, especially one with a guaranteed base level of violence. Balogun was good but not great against Mexico in the USA’s 3-0 win, although he showed considerable ability as a ball winner and space creator in the forward position. The American player pool is silly with guys like that and lacks bucket-getters, so Balogun’s strong, goalless 75 minutes was 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, causing Montes to kick his legs out and draw a direct red card. Weston McKennie then came in to defend his new striker and fought like half a dozen guys and also drew his own red card. Balogun replaced Pepi a few minutes later and play only resumed after Pepi sealed the victory with the USA’s third goal, as Sergiño Dest and Gerardo Arteaga drew dueling red cards and left their teams to end the game nine-on-nine.

Balogun said he was “shocked by the events” after the match, a state of awe that clearly did not affect his performance in the final against Canada. While the Nations League is a make-work tournament for the best teams in this weak confederation, it’s still hotly contested by, well, the best teams in this weak confederation, and so the USMNT’s 5-0 aggregate win over Mexico and Canada is really. impressive. Both rivals played full strength teams and the US 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 nowhere by taking an unthreatening pass into the top corner of the box and dribbling around Scott Kennedy and drawing the corner which Chris Richards converted for his first international goal. Twenty minutes later he ran onto the inside shoulder of his defender, slowed down to get on the end of a perfectly weighted Gio Reyna pass (Reyna was a master, played like a man who knows he has to impress again a coach his parents tried to extort a job) and kept his defender at bay as he threw in a hard, unstoppable first-down finish.

There’s not necessarily anything complicated about that goal, just a blistering run, a little slip and some muscle, but it’s a true attacking goal, the kind the USMNT hasn’t scored reliably in years. Balogun is a complete striker with considerable dribbling, passing and hold-up skills and all these parts of his game are used to score a ton of goals, all the time. He only had one against Canada, although he cleared another off the line, he drew several corners, he had a reasonable penalty 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 on to him despite having a crowded forward rotation.

Ever since the USMNT reformulated around Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah and its trio of buzzsaw midfielders, the hole at forward has been a glaring one. Josh Sargent, Pepi, Jordan Pefok, Daryl Dike, Jesus Ferreira and Haji Wright were all given real opportunities to grab a starting spot ahead of the last World Cup cycle and no player really ran with their chance. Wright, a big, tall, handsome, extremely limited player, scored the only goal by a forward at the World Cup, and it was a sloppy goal that did not change the fortunes of the United States. The American front line created too many chances and the midfield won too many balls to leave the tournament with only three goals in four games. Balogun is a true blue goalscorer who can also run and pass and win balls that made the Sargent/Ferreira types useful to the team. He is exactly what the USMNT needs.

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