Folarin Balogun picks USMNT over England, and instantly becomes a top U.S. striker
The U.S. men's national team has won a recruitment battle for coveted multi-national striker Folarin Balogun, whose official request to switch his affiliation from England to the U.S. was approved by FIFA on Tuesday.
Balogun, 21, will be immediately eligible to represent the USMNT, and could debut for the country of his birth as soon as next month. U.S. Soccer, in announcing the news, said that Balogun "is expected" to be part of the U.S. squad that plays Mexico in the Nations League semifinals on June 15.
Balogun was born in New York to Nigerian parents, then spent most of his childhood in England. He therefore could have played for any of the three countries internationally. He represented England in official youth competitions. As he rose through Arsenal's academy, he seemed destined for the England senior team as well.
But, as he broke out with 19 goals this season on loan at French club Reims, an England call-up never came — and U.S. Soccer accelerated its recruitment. In March, Balogun pulled out of an England U-21 squad and traveled to Florida, where the USMNT was training. He left without publicly committing, but over the weeks and months after that visit, he made his decision.
On Tuesday, he announced it via social media with a video that concluded: "I'M COMING HOME. LET'S MAKE HISTORY."
LET’S MAKE HISTORY! pic.twitter.com/DIsf0tCYVY
— Balogun (@balogun) May 16, 2023
In an interview released by U.S. Soccer shortly thereafter, he said he made the decision together with his family, and when he told them of his final choice, his mom responded: "What took you so long?"
"It feels like I’m at home here," Balogun said of the U.S. "In the end, it became a no-brainer."
Folarin Balogun's rise
Balogun, who is nicknamed "Flo," was born in Brooklyn — he has said that his parents were visiting family in New York at the time — but grew up in London, which is where he learned the game that he came to love.
He started at a local club, Aldersbrook, and played informally with friends. Then an Arsenal scout saw him at an all-day tournament and approached his father. Thus began a weeks-long trial, during which Tottenham called his father and also offered a trial. And so, for a short but crazy period, young Folarin would train with Arsenal's academy on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, and with Tottenham's the rest of the week.
He eventually chose Arsenal, and rose through a fiercely competitive academy, first as a winger and then as a goal-scoring center forward. The move to striker unleashed him. A prolific season earned him his first youth national team call-ups — with England's U17s — and placed him on American radars. He played once for the U.S. U18s, at an unofficial tournament in the Czech Republic, but otherwise continued to represent England.
U.S. fans and coaches, though, have tracked him ever since, and increasingly this season, his first with regular playing time at a first-division club. After spending the latter half of last season on loan at Middlesbrough in England's second-tier Championship, and with the Arsenal first team proving difficult to crack, the Gunners sent him on loan to Reims.
He started with a bang in Ligue 1 and never really slowed down. He's scored 19 goals, tied for fifth in the league, and underlying numbers suggest Balogun's fiery form is no fluke. He sits second among all Ligue 1 players, behind only Kylian Mbappé, in non-penalty Expected Goals, a combined measure of shot quantity and quality. He has excelled at a firmly mid-table club, meaning his success is not a product of brilliance all around him.
As he did, he seemed to anticipate a call from the England national team. But in March, when Gareth Southgate named a Euro 2024 qualifying squad that didn't include him, Balogun posted a cryptic message on Instagram: "In life, go where you're appreciated."
Balogun picks the USMNT, and fills a position of need
He was named to an England U-21 squad that month, but withdrew "after reporting an injury," England said.
A couple days later, the realization that Balogun, in an Instagram post, appeared to be in Orlando sent American soccer Twitter into a tizzy. Indeed, U.S. Soccer had helped arrange aspects of a stateside trip, which included an Orlando Magic game and New York Yankees spring training.
Balogun did not train with the USMNT then. But he had heard the American recruiting pitch. He spoke with some U.S. players. He had "some discussions" with USMNT staff, interim coach Anthony Hudson confirmed.
Hudson, speaking on a Zoom call with reporters at the time, added that the trip was "an opportunity for us just to share about our program, and who we are, and what we do."
It was also an opportunity to feel "the full force of the U.S. fans,” Balogun said in a Tuesday news release. “I was there and I just posted a photo with my friends thinking that it was just a holiday picture. Before I knew it, I just saw loads of comments and people knew I was in America, and I just really felt the love from there."
His conversations with Hudson were "brief," he said. His connections with USMNT players, including former Arsenal youth teammate and fellow multinational Yunus Musah, were likely influential. So were his American connections.
As recently as last year, in interviews, he'd refer to London as "my city," and "if people ask me where I'm from," he said in November, "I say I'm English." But he also noted that he's a "mixture" of cultures. He has extended family in New York and Atlanta. He has visited New York, and reconnected with his birthplace, and called it "a special feeling."
He also developed strong impressions of American sports from afar. "Across all sports, when I was growing up, I just knew the United States would just dominate and win, especially at the Olympics," Balogun said in the U.S. Soccer interview. "I would just always see them picking up gold medals. So for me to now have the opportunity to represent them, it means a lot to me. And I just hope I can bring that prestige and winning mentality over into soccer."
Balogun will, in theory, instantly elevate the USMNT. He'll fill a position of need. He'll join a team that scored just three goals in four 2022 World Cup games. The U.S. has struggled to find a consistent striker ever since Jozy Altidore's decline late last decade; the hope is that, in Balogun, they have found one.
He will not, of course, become an automatic starter. Ricardo Pepi is still promising, and Josh Sargent is still improving, and other youngsters will have their say. But none have performed like Balogun has in a "Big Five" European league. He is clever, quick and clinical with both feet. He has all the tools to be the USMNT's primary goalscorer for a decade to come.