Folarin Balogun: What to expect from the 21-year-old who surpassed Lionel Messi last season ahead of his USMNT debut


After completing a move to Inter Miami, the United States has been taken over by Lionel Messi mania.

The Argentine will surely go down as one of the greatest players to ever kick a football, but over in France’s Ligue 1, a boy from Brooklyn has surpassed the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner.

Folarin Balogun recently committed to represent the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT), ending years of speculation over whether the 21-year-old would choose to play for the United States or England on the international stage.

Here’s everything you need to know about the prodigy forward ahead of his potential USMNT debut against Mexico.

At last year’s World Cup in Qatar, a young USMNT team impressed with an undefeated finish in a difficult group before falling to a 3-1 loss to the Netherlands in the Round of 16.

The disappointing end to a promising tournament highlighted the lack of a focal point upfront, perhaps the biggest weakness in Gregg Berhalter’s team. Jesus Ferreira, Josh Sargent and Haji Wright were all used as the team’s No.9 to limited effect, scoring a goal between them in four games.

But that may be about to change after Balogun’s announcement in May.

“So proud to be a part of this!” the striker, who represented both England and the USA at international youth level, wrote on Instagram after opting to represent the country of his birth.

“It has been a long journey to get to this point, but it is with great pride that I can now represent these colors at the highest level. I am committed and fully committed!”

After his family moved from New York to England, Balogun’s football journey began at the Arsenal academy.

He first represented the Premier League club’s youth team in 2008, but with first-team opportunities outstanding, the talented forward sought loan moves to develop his skills while playing competitive games.

This led him first to Middlesbrough in the second tier of English football for the second half of the 2021–22 season and then to French Ligue 1 side Reims for the entire following season.

Stepping out of his comfort zone in these leagues allowed Balogun to learn more about himself on and off the pitch, according to The Athletic’s Arsenal writer Art de Roché.

DUBLIN, IRELAND - DECEMBER 10: Folarin Balogun of Arsenal scores their team's fourth goal past Gary Rogers of Dundalk during the UEFA Europa League Group B stage match between Dundalk FC and Arsenal FC at the Aviva Stadium on December 10, 2020 in Dublin, Ireland.  The match will be played without fans, behind closed doors as a precaution for Covid-19.  (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

“He’s grown up a lot, I’d say,” de Roché told me CNN Sports. “I think a lot of the growth has been almost mental, as well as what’s going on on the field. So from that side of things, it’s been pretty interesting to see that growth”

De Roché clearly remembers watching Balogun play for Middlesbrough in an away game against Millwall.

Millwall’s home stadium, The Den, is known for its hostile atmosphere – something that will have impressed Balogun as he descended into the opposition box looking for a penalty.

“All the Millwall fans started booing him and it continued throughout the game and he got kicked a couple of times as well,” explained de Roché.

“That kind of intensity I think could offer another level because now he’s playing at the Stade Vélodrome against Marseille, which is just as intense. I remember talking to him during the World Cup break and he said he thought it was like he was walking into a zombie apocalypse.”

MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 22: Folarin Balogun of Middlesbrough challenged by Semi Ajayi of West Bromwich Albion during the Sky Bet Championship match between Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion at Riverside Stadium on February 22, 2022 in Middlesbrough, England.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

On the field, Balogun has refined his game over the past two seasons.

“He’s been used in a few different ways, which has probably helped his overall game as a center forward,” de Roché said. “The one thing that really stands out is how eager he is to just get in the box and have a real presence there.

“You’ll see a lot of his chances and shots come from inside the penalty area, in that zone between, say, the edge of the box and up to the penalty spot.”

Journalist Alex Barker, who goes by the name “Euro Expert” on Twitter, saw Balogun up close during the young player’s time at Reims.

“Balogun is a striker whose primary goal on the pitch is to score goals. To some it might feel like an obvious statement, that’s what forwards are supposed to do, right?” Barker told CNN Sport.

“Well, some strikers, e.g [AC Milan’s] Oliver Giroud or [Liverpool’s] Roberto Firmino, is often on the field at the service of others. They use smart positioning and solid passing to create chances. Balogun is constantly on the receiving end of them.”

With Reims last season, Balogun became the first person from the United States to score at least 20 goals in one of Europe’s top five leagues, despite playing as a midfielder. His tally of 21 goals, six of which came from the penalty spot, was five more than Messi managed with Paris Saint-Germain in the league last season.

“Having 15 goals without a penalty in the league is seriously impressive and what’s also good is the nature of his finishes. Every goal has come from inside the box in Ligue 1, with most being one-touch volleys or pokes in the six-yard box,” Barker said.

Nice's French midfielder Khephren Thuram (2nd L) battles for the ball with Reims' English forward Folarin Balogun next to Nice's Swiss defender Jordan Lotomba during the French L1 football match between Stade de Reims and OGC Nice at Stade Auguste-Delaune in Reims , northern France on January 15, 2023. (Photo by FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI / AFP) (Photo by FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI / AFP via Getty Images)

Despite his success at club level last season, Balogun will still need to adjust to international soccer and life with the USMNT, though his recent experience should stand him in good stead.

“You could see in different kinds of teams that he’s had to pick up different qualities. So hopefully from maybe a national team perspective he’ll have a few different qualities that he can maybe rely on to really establish himself,” they said Roché on Balogun’s impending debut.

His off-the-ball qualities should also come in handy as he fits into a new team’s setup.

“Balogun’s two biggest strengths are his movement and his physicality,” said Barker, both of which the forward uses to give defenders headaches when his team is on the attack.

“Here we see his pace and muscles shine. He quickly gets away from most defenders, but those who catch him are often pushed back hard by Balogun, who raises an arm to block them. It’s an interesting move, but it’s served him well.”

CARSON, CA - JUNE 8: Yunus Musah, Folarin Balogun, Auston Trusty of USA during USMNT practice at Dignity Health Sports Park on June 8, 2023 in Carson, California.  (Photo by John Dorton/USSF/Getty Images for USSF).

Ahead of the 2026 World Cup – which will be hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico – Balogun could be one of the poster boys of the tournament.

Having spoken to the player, de Roché believes Balogun has the character both on and off the pitch to deliver in this capacity.

“When you were in his presence, you felt someone who was very sure of himself, not arrogant, but just very sure that he knew he had talent,” de Roché said. “He will be someone who is really ready to take on anything because he also gave off a vibe of someone who is not too concerned with what everyone has to say about him.

“When there are a lot of chances, of course there will be ups and downs, but he keeps his cool. Hopefully that will stand him in good stead for years to come.”

With options as England’s center forward limited and the USMNT giving the forward chances to impress at international level, Balogun could thrive as a main man.

“Going to a team that wanted him will really make a big difference because he will probably pay a bit of that appreciation as well,” de Roché added.

CARSON, CA - JUNE 7: Folarin Balogun of the United States during a USMNT practice session at Dignity Health Sports Park on June 7, 2023 in Carson, California.  (Photo by John Dorton/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

It’s an old cliché that goals win games, but one that still rings true; because of this, Balogun’s impact cannot be underestimated.

“I think he is simply a huge upgrade from [the USMNT’s] center forward options. I think the team needs to be built around him, myself,” Barker said of Balogun’s importance.

Following the Arsenal man’s move last season, Barker also believes this could only be the beginning for the forward.

“I would imagine that Balogun, playing in a more dominant team, could score even more,” he added.

But despite his early success, both Barker and De Roché believe it’s important to manage expectations.

“I would say excitement is probably the right word,” De Roché said ahead of the USMNT’s Mexico clash. “But you don’t want to put too much pressure on him because, again, international football is another level – even with how well he’s done in France.”

PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 29: Folarin Balogun #29 of Reims celebrates scoring a goal in stoppage time during the Ligue 1 match between Paris Saint-Germain and Stade Reims at Parc des Princes on January 29, 2023 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Xavier Laine/Getty Images)

But both de Roché and Barker agree that Balogun is not someone to be underestimated, especially as he always seems to rise to the challenges thrown at him.

“I’m not sure he’s going to be an elite world-class player,” Barker said, “but you certainly wouldn’t bet against him.”

Leave a Comment