The US men’s national team are mere hours away from Friday’s visit to Grenada, the first of this international window’s two Concacaf Nations League matches, their first competitive action since the FIFA 2022 World Cup.
It’s a different sort of competition that has many of their supporters aflame on social media, however: The recruiting battle for Folarin Balogun.
The 21-year-old Arsenal striker is lighting up Ligue 1 during his season-long loan at Stade Reims. His 17 goals are tied for third in the French top flight’s golden boot race and though he’s long been part of England’s youth national teams, he was born in New York and remains eligible to represent the United States (as well as Nigeria, via his family heritage).
The plot thickened when Balogun was left out of England’s senior squad this month, a snub that some speculate prompted an Instagram post bearing the phrase “In life, go where your [sic] appreciated.” Then he dropped out of their Under-21s camp due to injury. And on Wednesday he posted photos on Instagram that appeared to be taken in Orlando, an hour or so away from the USMNT’s current training base and the site of Monday’s CNL match vs. El Salvador. The photos, it should be stressed, have not been verified as being taken this week.
“With Flo, all I'll say is there's been, there is, open dialogue with him and his team,” said interim USMNT coach Anthony Hudson when releasing his roster last week. “And that dialogue is continuing, and that's all I can say on that one.”
As circumstantial as all this may be – and no one in the US camp has suggested Balogun paid or will pay them a visit – it’s underlined the excitement around the hope of him even considering a change of allegiance.
“I've spoken to Flo, we obviously had most of our preseason together,” USMNT and Arsenal goalkeeper Matt Turner said during a Wednesday media availability from the Yanks’ hotel outside Orlando. “And I knew going into it that he had some roots in the US, so him and I developed a relationship pretty quickly. And yeah, that's pretty much the extent of it. We check in on each other here and there.
“Yeah, he'd be a great addition to our national team. I think he's done really well, obviously, for his club on loan, and we'll see. The decision has to come from the heart, because it's not necessarily an easy task always, to come and play in these Concacaf games, and it's a tough region at times. So for us, we'd be really grateful to have him, but his heart needs to be in it.”
A year of growth
In the longer term, both Turner and Balogun are hungry to carve out places at the core of Mikel Arteta’s squad. Turner has spent most of his first season in London as the backup to Aaron Ramsdale and some reports suggest Arsenal are prepared to sell Balogun in the summer, perhaps satisfied with the forwards ahead of him on the depth chart who’ve helped the Gunners build an eight-point lead atop the Premier League standings with 10 matches to go.
Turner has played just three matches for Arsenal since the World Cup. On Wednesday, though, he reiterated his conviction that this doesn’t automatically compromise his preparedness for USMNT duty.
“Obviously it's not ideal, not playing week in and week out,” said the New England Revolution alum, who is back in competition with Zack Steffen and Ethan Horvath for the Yanks’ starting role. “But as a person, I have had many conversations with all of you [reporters], and you guys understand the standards that I hold myself to. And that includes training, so making sure that I'm ready to go every single day in training, making sure that I'm showing up and putting my best foot forward and being ready and preparing myself mentally like I'm playing in the games on the weekend.
“I feel good, I feel ready to play.”
Turner also spoke expansively about the many beneficial aspects of his multi-million-dollar transfer from MLS to AFC, calling it “one of the biggest reasons I was able to get the number-one shirt out of the World Cup,” where he started all four US matches before their Round of 16 exit to the Netherlands.
“It changed the perspective around me and what I was able to accomplish in MLS,” Turner added, “and it put me in a better league around better players. It made me faster, it made me make decisions more quickly and better. And then it put me up against top competition every single day. So I think I improved tremendously as a goalkeeper.
“I think also in terms of life experience, having a kid abroad, being abroad, being alone away from family, has been tough but also a tremendous learning experience as well. So I've grown and gained perspective in that area of my life as well … I think I'll look back on this first year as a massive success.”
Turner also flashed leadership gravitas as he spoke positively about Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT coaching legacy – “everything that he built, from the outside it's not as clear, the connection that he created amongst the group, the selections, the like-mindedness of people” – and teammate Gio Reyna’s return to the fold: “He's working really hard on the pitch and for all purposes of the media, seems like everything's behind him.”
The New Jersey native is even slated to be part of Arsenal’s just-announced participation in the 2023 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target in Washington, D.C., an occasion to take stock of his incredible journey from undrafted rookie to World Cup standout.
“I'm really excited about coming back to play in the All-Star Game,” said Turner, a 2021 All-Star and MVP from that penalty-kick victory over Liga MX’s best. “It'd be really cool to have been on one side of it and then come back and play on the other side of it, so to speak.
“Because I was so late to the game, I can never think that things are good enough because I understand that they can always be better. … I think that I have the potential to be a really, really elite goalkeeper in the world, but I just need to continue to work and prove it, and that comes with every day.”
MLS 101 with Arsenal’s Matt Turner