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Folarin Balogun Is Here. What Does He Bring to the USMNT?

The prolific young forward could be the striker the U.S. has been desperately searching for—and a key figure at the stateside 2026 World Cup

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Because it’s 2023, Folarin Balogun had his own hype video ready to go. It arrived a few hours after news broke on Tuesday that FIFA had approved the coveted 21-year-old striker’s switch from the England men’s national team to the United States. The clip repeats audio of some of the fevered speculation over which program would land the forward: “He’s the perfect guy to take this squad to the next level,” one commentator says. “If you’re the United States, you have to go and get him.” It’s justified analysis for a player who has, on loan from Arsenal, broken out in the French Ligue 1 with a prolific 19 league goals in 34 matches this season.

“I’m coming home,” the video proclaims after flashing a U.S. jersey with Balogun’s name on it. “Let’s make history.”

Balogun was born in Brooklyn, but his Nigerian parents moved the family to London when he was 2 years old. He joined the Arsenal academy when he was 10 and spent his teenage years bouncing back and forth between the English and U.S. youth national teams—he was also eligible for Nigeria.

Insiders and hardcore fans had him on their watch lists for some time, but as Balogun’s goal tally mounted this season, so did the hype. Because the American soccer community enjoys nothing quite so much as projecting its aspirations onto a single young player—ideally one who hasn’t even committed to the program yet. After all, the striker position has been a problem for the ascendant U.S. men’s team for the past half decade. The absence of a consistent goal scorer—a Clint Dempsey, if you will—represents a yawning gap in this purported golden generation. As the depth chart has cemented in almost every other position on the field, the lone striker job remains up for grabs.

Balogun is hardly the only young striker with promise and an American passport, but none of the others have staked a credible claim as the starter. Ricardo Pepi came on strong as a teenager, tearing up Major League Soccer and scoring in his first two USMNT games, and then went more than a year without a goal in his new leagues in Germany and Holland. West Bromwich Albion’s Daryl Dike has struggled with injuries. Haji Wright bounced between club teams before settling in Turkey, but mostly has offered uneven performances in a U.S. jersey. FC Dallas’s Jesus Ferreira was first choice for a bit but withered at the World Cup. Josh Sargent often plays out of position for Norwich City and doesn’t score enough goals. Brandon Vazquez is still waiting for a real chance to translate his MLS goals to the national team.

In March, Balogun declined an invitation to England’s under-21 camp because of a hamstring injury, while senior Three Lions manager Gareth Southgate said that Balogun would have to bide his time before making the top-level squad. “We cannot go and give first-team call-ups to someone just because we don’t want them to go somewhere else,” Southgate declared. So Balogun went to Orlando for a quiet meeting with interim U.S. head coach Anthony Hudson, only for internet sleuths to work out the striker’s whereabouts, compounding the speculation.

“I think that’s when I really saw the full force of the U.S. fans,” Balogun said on Tuesday in an interview with U.S. Soccer. “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. There’s been a lot of build up, so I’ve obviously seen people saying that I should choose to represent the U.S. and it’s just something I’m really happy that I’ve decided to do.”

The official announcement on Tuesday provoked euphoria from all the expected sources and some not-so-obvious ones.

In Balogun, who is expected to be called up for next month’s CONCACAF Nations League Finals, the U.S. has added a forward who can stretch the field with his speed and movement. Balogun can also take on defenders one-on-one and help trigger the press when out of possession. He offers a different skill set and look from Wright and Dike, who are more traditional target strikers; or Pepi, Ferreira, and Sargent, who drop deeper into the midfield to hold up play and launch wingers forward. Balogun’s goal tally speaks to a facility for finishing that has too often gone amiss for the U.S.

Like all dual nationals, Balogun made a practical decision, even if he said all the right things about how much playing for the U.S. men’s national team means to him and his family. (“What took you so long?” he recalls his mother saying of him picking the United States.) England’s striker position is blocked by the likes of Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, and Ivan Toney. Nigeria features Victor Osimhen, already one of the leading strikers in European club soccer and, at 24, only three years older than Balogun. Plainly, the quickest path to an international career went through the United States. This was the same deliberation that other strikers have made.

“At the end of the day, you want to go where you can develop, where you can compete, where you can help the squad,” Dike, whose sister and cousin have represented Nigeria, said recently during a USMNT press call.

That’s why U.S. Soccer’s recruitment emphasis on dual nationals involves bringing them into camp to experience the team’s fraternal camaraderie while also laying out a clear path to meaningful minutes. “With certain players, it’s important if there’s an opportunity where we can have someone experience the culture, our team, the players, how we do things,” Hudson added in the press call. “How we see the player fitting into what we’re doing. These are all the things a player wants to see and feel and hear so he can make an informed decision.”

For all the fixation on lone names like Balogun’s, developing a world-class national team is a numbers game. A truly competitive team at a World Cup is the residue of a ton of talent that didn’t make it that far. Argentina’s decades-long quest to find a successor to Diego Maradona only succeeded because it had a whole bunch of New Maradonas who never came good, until one did. Along the way, the team built a deep supporting cast around Lionel Messi.

Photo by Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

In a totally globalized sport, the trick in international soccer is to hoard every promising dual national you can bag—because many of them won’t work out. With Balogun’s enlistment, the U.S. has now recruited a half dozen or so players who might lead the line for the U.S. at the stateside 2026 World Cup and beyond. All of them, except Sargent, were also eligible for other national teams. There’s no exact telling which of them will turn out to be the stars, if any. Balogun might be one of them. Balogun buys the U.S. another roll of the dice at the craps table, another shot at an elite striker.

That formula has already paid off elsewhere on the field for the Americans. Yunus Musah, who forwent joining England, Italy, and Ghana, starred in midfield for the U.S. at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, yet several other highly touted midfielders didn’t, such as Gedion Zelalem and Emerson Hyndman. For every Alex Zendejas, an exciting winger who ditched Mexico in favor of the U.S. in March, a Julian Green or Aron Johannsson falls short of expectations.

Between Balogun and Zendejas, that now makes two big gets in a period when the men’s national team has been in turmoil after head coach Gregg Berhalter’s contract expired under a cloud of ugly accusations. Star forward Christian Pulisic fretted in a recent interview with ESPN that momentum was being squandered. It has been almost six months since Berhalter’s departure, and a permanent appointment doesn’t seem imminent; new sporting director Matt Crocker, who will have a big say in the hiring, was only appointed on April 25. “Do I feel like we should just wait and wait?” Pulisic said. “I don’t think it’s necessary because I don’t feel we’re in a phase [when we] need a complete rebuild. … We have a strong core, in my opinion. … We want to continue that and build off this World Cup, which had a lot of positives, and get going with that as soon as we can.”

Perhaps the most important work to be done right now is in recruitment, which has continued apace. Even if the biggest wins are in the hype video arena, that could still pay off three summers from now.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a regular contributor on soccer to The Ringer. He is writing a book about the United States men’s national team. He teaches at Marist College.