USMNT save forward Folarin Balogun arrives for the showdown in Mexico


Folarin Balogun, who has enjoyed a 21-goal season in France’s Ligue 1, comes under the USMNT spotlight this week in the CONCACAF Nations League. (Photo by John Dorton/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

The hype started when Folarin Balogun was just 16 years old, long before he even stepped onto a professional soccer field. It started with a tweet, about a boy at Arsenal academy and his place of birth. It then lingered on social media, message boards, and in dreams for years. Balogun, who was born in New York and raised in London, had accepted a call-up to the US youth national team only once; he had otherwise played for England. But until he played for the senior team, there was hope among USMNT fans desperate for a forward.

And so these obsessives got to work in March, when Balogun posted a seemingly harmless photo to Instagram amid rumors and a behind-the-scenes recruitment process in full swing.

They had, of course, been following Balogun’s every digital move, particularly after he responded to a snub from the England squad with a cryptic message: “In life, go where you are valued.” What they didn’t know was that Balogun, with the help of US Soccer had planned a trip to Florida, at least in part, to liaise with the USMNT. All parties had tried to keep his whereabouts a secret. Before releasing the photo, Balogun had his agent review it and got the green light.

“To be fair,” he said last week with a smile, “from the picture, [even] I couldn’t tell I was in America.”

But US fans began to analyze it. A palm tree was the first clue. The other clue was half a slogan painted on the side of a mostly obscured building – what an amateur detectiveabove internet detective work, identified as Pubs Pub in downtown Orlando. And almost immediately, the American flag emoji began waving in Instagram comments and direct messages.

Balogun’s trip, which included meeting then-USMNT executive Anthony Hudson and dining with players, plus VIP treatment at Orlando Magic and New York Yankees games and more – “it was the equivalent of a college recruiting visit,” JT said, US Soccer CEO Batson told Emox News on Tuesday that he had cranked the hype into high gear. And it hasn’t really slowed down since then. Balogun committed to the USMNT in May. Before he even reported to camp, interviewers briefed him about “a US audience that’s already getting on the Balo hype train.”

“Do you understand how much people love you already?” asked a CBS host.

“It was overwhelming at times,” admitted Balogun.

But then he arrived in Los Angeles and Las Vegas before his expected debut in Thursday’s CONCACAF Nations League semifinals against Mexico (10pm ET, Paramount+/Univision) and got to work.

Escaping what he called “the noise that surrounded me,” he entered a contest with a 20-year-old who, less than two years ago, had also satisfied every USMNT fan’s craving for a forward of the future.

Ricardo Pepi emerged as a savior in World Cup qualifiers, earning $20m in European transfers and seemed the answer to a troubled position until eventually plateauing. Now he’s the incumbent, on the rise again, and one reason Balogun knows, “I’ve got to earn my spot.”

Of course, this is what interim coach BJ Callaghan Balogun said on the phone a few weeks ago:

“Listen, you have to show yourself and integrate into the group. We will work as hard as we can to integrate you. At the same time, it is your responsibility to become part of this group on and off the pitch as soon as possible.”

He’s been doing so since arriving in California last Tuesday, digging into the game’s principles and acclimating to an already refined culture. He smiled at the crew meals and Learning Golf from Weston McKennie, featuring Walker Zimmerman and Christian Pulisic for real-time analysis, encouragement and laughs. “Balo”, as he is known, is generally introverted, maybe even shy; but he is easygoing and outgoing.

“And of course that doesn’t happen overnight,” he says. “So there’s a level of patience that we all need to build the right relationships. But we are definitely working towards it.”

Pepi, on the other hand, already has these relationships. He’s already started twice against Mexico. He already knows the system and style, as well as the expectations of the coaching staff, which the players say are all similar to those under former coach Gregg Berhalter. That familiarity and sweat yield could earn Pepi a spot in Thursday’s lineup as the USMNT looks to extend their unbeaten streak to six games in the regional rivalry.

“Of course we both want the starting place,” said Pepi last week. “So we’re always going to compete in a healthy way.” Callaghan said he’s looking forward to watching this competition.

Ricardo Pepi also made his USMNT debut with sky-high expectations. (Photo by John Dorton/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

However, the hype continues to be almost irresistible. Balogun’s first week of training after a 21-goal season in France’s Ligue 1 hasn’t changed that. Michele Giannone from TUDN reported a selection of reviews he has heard from people around the USMNT: “Balo is real.” “Balo is real.” “The hype is real.”

Yunus Musah, Balogun’s former academy colleague at Arsenal, provided the media with a similarly flattering and straightforward scouting account. “It’s kind of self-explanatory,” Musah said. “Everyone saw what he did this season. You have to give him the ball and he’ll put it in the goal, you know? That’s pretty much it.”

In other words: the years of waiting, full of wavering optimism, have paid off.

When Balogun takes the field on Thursday, anticipation will be high on the big stage, even if he comes on as a second-half substitute. Teammates have given him an introduction to the rivalry – “just the backstory and recent results and they just explained how big the event is,” Balogun said. “Of course,” he added, “there couldn’t be a better way to introduce myself.”

But opportunities, he said, don’t bother him. Hype and 60,000 green-clad fans at Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium might create pressure, but “I’m used to the pressure,” he said, as if to allay any concerns. “The pressure I have on myself is internal. What I hear outside will never be more than I expect from myself. So for me it’s not a big problem.”

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