National Writer: Charles Boehm

Folarin Balogun commits: USMNT's summer just got way more interesting

23MLS_Folarin Balogun_USMNT

Give the US men’s national team fan(s) in your life a fist bump or a high five today.

Tuesday’s official confirmation of Folarin Balogun's recruitment delivers USMNT supporters their best news since the 2022 World Cup run ended with a sobering Round-of-16 loss to the Netherlands back on Dec. 3 – and it might even wash away that sour, lingering taste from the Reyna-Berhalter scandal.

By successfully convincing one of the top young No. 9s in Europe to commit his international future to the United States, interim coach Anthony Hudson and his colleagues have addressed the program’s Achilles heel for the better part of the last four years. With elite finishing abilities that have paced him to the uppermost reaches of the Ligue 1 scoring charts with Reims, Balogun adds a powerful jolt of quality and attitude to a team stuck treading water for months in the absence of permanent leadership.

Immediate opportunity

Whether you credit Hudson, his predecessor and former boss Gregg Berhalter, the legions of very online USMNT faithful who literally begged him to join up, or perhaps all of the above for this successful recruitment, the nature of Balogun’s choice deserves close inspection. This is a blue-chip prospect, reared in the lofty environments of Arsenal’s academy and England’s youth national teams, who was clearly on course to graduate from the U-21s up to the senior squad of the fifth-ranked nation in the world but has now decided that trajectory just isn’t steep enough for his ambitions.

Gareth Southgate didn’t say ‘no’ to Balogun, he said ‘wait’ – and Balogun decided that wasn’t going to work – nor was waiting around for Nigeria to make their case. As Hudson undoubtedly told him in person on his dramatic barnstorming visit to central Florida back in March, the USMNT can offer him a real shot at winning their starting role now, and now is when he feels ready to take the next step.

“When I broke the news to my family they were all just over the moon, especially my mom. She said, ‘What took you so long?’, so for sure we were all on the same page,” Balogun told in a Q&A released by the federation on Tuesday.

“To be honest I was a bit overwhelmed,” he added of the Yanks’ fervent fandom. “I knew the US was obviously a big country, but I didn’t realize how many people were involved in soccer, especially every time I went on social media I was seeing loads of comments with people saying I should choose to represent the US. It’s nice to feel that appreciation for sure.”

So whether he eventually lives up to his game-breaking potential or not, in the near term, the 21-year-old striker’s one-time switch from the Three Lions to the States also sparks new hype into the USMNT’s busy summer schedule.

Summer trophies on the line

It’s surely no coincidence Balogun made his choice and filed the paperwork to FIFA in plenty of time to be eligible for the Concacaf Nations League knockout phase in Las Vegas. The USMNT will look to defeat border rivals Mexico in the semifinals on June 15, then knock off either Canada or Panama a few days later to defend their CNL trophy.

With Reims’ Ligue 1 slate ending on June 3, he’ll be fresh off a breakthrough club campaign and probably eager to get introduced to his new national team colleagues. The feeling is surely mutual. In terms of both talent and temperament, Balogun is the type that others will want to play with and measure themselves against. If his US debut happens with hardware on the line, all the better.

“Luckily for me, my first time is going to be in a competitive tournament so of course the ambition is to win and there’s not really much more to it,” said Balogun. “I’m going to have the opportunity to get in and train with the boys, but for sure it’s just straight down to business when we head to Vegas.”

We still don’t know the specifics of how Hudson will juggle the CNL weekend with the Gold Cup, which kicks off for the USMNT on June 24 vs. Jamaica. He’s suggested he’ll split the duties along the lines of how Berhalter approached a similar schedule in 2021, though more recent reports have alleged he’ll bring along as many first-choice selections as possible to both events. If Balogun is fired up enough to spend most of his summer with the Yanks, it could well inspire others – say, Christian Pulisic or Weston McKennie – to do the same.

The timing of their European clubs’ preseason camps obviously factors in here, too, and Stateside soccer likers may want to do the same. Some US players have earned the right to join preseason (which generally cranks up in early July this year) late in order to serve their country; others will get a less positive response from their club managers.

As of now, Balogun is scheduled to end his French loan stint at season’s end and rejoin Arsenal, who will open their US summer tour with the MLS All-Star Game presented by Target at D.C. United’s Audi Field on July 19. Will the Gunners have already lined up an outbound move by then, or might he get a real chance to win a place on their first team? Meanwhile, the Gold Cup final is scheduled for SoFi Stadium in Southern California on July 16, the previous Sunday.

Will the Balogun factor goose what were already projected to be brisk ticket sales for Concacaf’s tentpole men’s tournaments? Considering he has a case for being the region’s most talented player right from the jump, it will surely be fun to find out.