Analysis: Balogun switches to the USMNT, raises the bar for the team
May 16, 2023
IN A PROCESS THAT has actually taken several years, U.S. Soccer today got the man they wanted when Arsenal forward Folarin Balogun’s one-time change of association with FIFA was approved thereby permanently switching his international affiliation from England to the United States. The moves gives the U.S. team a much needed boost in the attack.
For fans of the U.S. program, this is very exciting because it boosts the team’s goal scoring capabilities by giving an option in perhaps the team’s biggest need – the No. 9 position. Balogun in in the midst of a breakthrough season at Stade de Reims in France’s Ligue 1.
“We are delighted that Folarin has chosen to represent the United States,” said USMNT head coach Anthony Hudson. “Not only is he an extremely talented player, he’s also a good man who is going to add value to our National Team both on and off the field at a time when the team is continuing to improve. It’s clear that he values his U.S. roots and we can’t wait for him to come in and be a part of the team.”
Here are a bunch of thoughts on Balogun’s move.
By the numbers
This season has been a tough go for Americans abroad. The numbers just haven’t been there for Americans, especially in the top five European leagues. Leaving out defenders and goalkeepers, here is a look at midfielders, wingers, and forwards regarding their production in league play.
The numbers aren’t productive. It total, this group of players produces a goal every 1012 minutes of league play and an assist every 843 minutes of league play. Sure, Tim Weah has spent a lot of time as a fullback this season but that is also part of the problem. If he wasn’t playing fullback, he probably would have played significantly less minutes.
This season has just seen the productivity of most of the top players of the U.S. national team player pool decline. Gio Reyna’s goal scoring ratio is excellent but the flip side of that is that he has not played much at all. Some of his goals, such as over this past weekend in a lopsided win over Borussia Monchengladbach, have come at times when the game has already been decided.
For the second-best producer on this list, Jordan Pefok, he has four goals but has only scored once since mid-September and has seen his minutes drastically cut in the second half of the season.
The result has seen Gregg Berhalter and later Anthony Hudson attempt to bolster the attack with players based outside of the top five European leagues. The results have been mixed. Ricardo Pepi started off well in 2021, struggled in 2022, but is back on track in 2023. Haji Wright, Jesus Ferreira, and Josh Sargent have all been uneven. Daryl Dike has played well at times but can’t stay healthy.
But now you add Balogun to the mix.
Balogun has more goals this season in Ligue 1 than all other Americans in the top five European leagues combined.
Numerically it’s a huge boost. It’s easy to see why this could be a huge help to the U.S. team. But he's not going to fix some of the key issues - such as the ongoing concerns for most of the players.
But, as always, sometimes things on paper do not always translate over into reality. Balogun still has only top season under his belt. It’s not yet determined if this will be his true level going forward. But it is still a high potential add to the program.
It is also beneficial to the U.S. team that he is doing this at the beginning of the cycle. If this was in the run up to a World Cup, figuring out how to add him into the team would have taken away from the time needed for what is normally final preparations.
Now Balogun will get the Nations League followed by a long series of friendlies leading up to the Copa America next summer. There is plenty of time for Anthony Hudson followed by the next U.S. manager to make this work.
A long process
This has been a process for nearly five years in the making. Soon after he was identified as a dual U.S. citizen, Balogun was called up to a U.S. U-18 team camp in August 2018. That camp was run by U.S. U-20 head coach Tab Ramos. Prior to that, he had been playing for English youth national teams. Following that, he returned to playing for English youth national teams.
But the following year, Ramos offered Balogun a spot on the 2019 U-20 World Cup team but Balogun was still unwilling to file his switch with FIFA.
In March 2022, when Balogun was on loan at Middlesbrough, Gregg Berhalter attended Balogun’s match but Balogun opted to play for England’s U-21 team later that month.
Things began to take a significant turn in March 2023 when Balogun withdrew from a camp with England’s U-21 team and decided to vacation in Orlando – where the U.S. team was training for Nations League games. From there, it only was a matter of time.
“My decision to represent the United States, it came together with my family,” Balogun said in an interview with U.S. Soccer. “We decided it would be the right thing for me, to represent the country I was born in. In the end it became a no-brainer, but for sure, it’s just something I wanted to do and it feels like I’m at home here.”
“When I broke the news to my family they were all just over the moon, especially my mom,” he added. “She said, ‘What took you so long?’, so for sure we were all on the same page. Then after that conversation, I just sent the message across to my agent and said ‘Let’s make it happen.’”
England botched this
On of the big takeaways from this dual national “recruitment,” is that this was almost as much of a case of England botching it as the U.S. winning it.
Once Balogun began breaking out in Ligue 1, England continued to show no interest in calling him up or even communicating with him as a member of the senior national team pool. England’s player pool is deep, but there isn’t any national team program that should be detached from an eligible player who is pushing towards 20 goals in a top five league. It’s hard to see Argentina, Brazil, Germany, or Spain being detached from such a player. That is not the same as saying a player like Balogun would get an automatic call-up to any of those powerful national teams. But each of those teams would likely be communicating with a player performing like Balogun in a top five league.
But England was detached. When Balogun returned to Reims from visiting the U.S. team in Orlando in March, England’s FA decided to meet with Balogun – but it sent England U-21 manager Lee Carsley. It was a surprisingly tone-deaf move that probably hurt England’s effort to keep Balogun.
Balogun’s problem with England is that he had one of the top scorers in a top-five league but was stuck with England’s U-21 team. If England was serious about keeping him, full national team manager Gareth Southgate or someone high within the FA would have met with Balogun. Instead, they sent the U-21 manager to meet with him when Balogun’s problem with England was playing with the U-21 team.
Balogun is now talking about how this decision to play for the U.S. team was a decision from the heart. But it’s hard to think that this wasn’t very avoidable for England, if the FA wanted to keep him. Balogun likely would have accepted a March call-up from England’s full team. He might have also have stayed if Southgate had been the one communicating with him telling him to be patient for a few more months into the summer.
The U.S. hasn’t really been in a position to pitch a long-term vision to Balogun either given that it has an interim manager and its Sporting Director wasn’t even announced until May and he won’t even begin until August.
“The conversations I had with the coach were very brief. We spoke numerous times, but he was just obviously telling me about the plan and how much he wants me to join the team. Of course, I just told him that I was keen and I understood the project. It was just a matter of when.”
“To represent the United States means a lot, more than people would know. I’m very proud and honored to have this opportunity, and I want to give everything I have to make our team successful.”
While Balogun is all in on the United States now, this seems like this was winnable for England, but the FA either didn’t care enough or it didn’t respect the attractiveness of the U.S. option for Balogun.
Next steps for Balogun
For Balogun, the next steps are obvious. He needs to show up for the Nations League and show chemistry with the U.S. attackers. The U.S. team’s offense has been struggling because there are just not enough scoring options. The midfield doesn’t score a lot and the team’s forwards haven’t been consistent. It comes down to Christian Pulisic and occasionally Brenden Aaronson or Tim Weah.
But now, Balogun is going to have an opportunity to prove himself and he’ll have a grace period to get adjusted. And while Balogun has a lot on his plate on the field, he has almost as much off the field. The U.S. team has a strong comradery and most of the players have been together for years. Fitting into that group will also be part of a process for Balogun.
“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," Balogun said. "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.”
The U.S. team will continue to need more forwards. Even if Balogun plays well initially, players get injured, form changes quickly and players can fall into an extended dip, and other players simply raise their level. This doesn’t mean players like Ricardo Pepi or Josh Sargent are locked into being backups for the foreseeable future.
It just means the bar is raised for everyone.