Breaking down news on Reyna, Balogun, U.S. U-20s, previewing USMNT vs Grenada, & more
March 24, 2023
ASN IS BACK into the full swing of things after a week away – and there is a lot of stuff to catch up on. The USMNT has been having media all week, Gio Reyna is back, Folarin Balogun is in Orlando, the U.S. U-20’s have been in action, along with a bunch of other stuff.
Let’s just get into it.
Environment for the USMNT
It is a weird international break for the U.S. team. Yes, there are two games and yes, they actually do count. But the CONCACAF Nations League isn’t a tournament that is really gripping the fan base. It’s hard enough to keep the Gold Cup a priority, let alone adding another CONCACAF title. Yes, people will care about a USMNT – Mexico final, but that is because of the opportunity to defeat a rival. If Mexico was eliminated before the final and the U.S. team had an opportunity to win the Nations League without playing Mexico, would it really register?
But that being said, this window is more useful for off-field options.
For one, it gets the team back together in a relatively low-stress environment. For one, it’s not that healthy for a national team to be apart for six months (end of the World Cup through June) as players can drift apart over the months. One of the big strengths of the U.S. team is the cohesion and comradery and Gregg Berhalter should be credited for that. The team never became unglued during the Reyna family fiasco or a bunch of other stuff.
While it’s true, that not all of the players are in the camp either because of injury, or that MLS players are geared towards the Mexico friendly next month, it’s a healthy chunk of the core. There is a huge benefit of them just being with each other.
Also, if ever there was a perfect window for the U.S. team to work through off-field distractions, this is it. The talk this past week hasn’t been about the Grenada or El Salvador games, it has been about two huge off-field issues: Gio Reyna’s reintroduction and Folarin Balogun.
Let’s talk about both of these.
Gio Reyna is back with the U.S. national team in the very first international window after the World Cup. Everyone knows about the events during and after the World Cup involving Berhalter, Stewart, McBride and the Reyna family.
But now it is time for Gio Reyna to return and this is a perfect time. The last time you want to be reintroducing Reyna into the group is against top opponents, or a Mexico rivalry game, or a summer tournament. Reyna will have to come back at some point, and the team can absorb the distraction now. Reyna is under a microscope and it’s a good thing that he can learn to deal with it now.
Yes, there have been some tough moments. Christian Pulisic’s ESPN interview ahead of camp said Berhalter was “unfortunate” to have been put into the current situation and was critical of the “childish” behavior. Interviews this week have praised Berhalter for creating unity in the group.
"It's been a great team unity, and I think that's something that hasn't always been there, but now I think it’s a mainstay,” Tim Ream said. “I think that it's up to the leadership group to continue that kind of culture and that feel of complete togetherness. Because at the end of the day, we're all playing for the same thing. We're all pulling in the same direction. And that's the most important thing.”
As for whether or not this incident makes it too tough for Berhalter to rejoin the team, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for Gio Reyna to have to work through a problem like this on his own – away from his parents. The issue was mostly resolved in Qatar anyway. But the team might even grow stronger because of it – similar to what happened after Weston McKennie was dismissed from the September 2021 camp.
Balogun in Orlando
While unannounced, Arsenal forward (on loan at Stade de Reims), Folarin Balogun, was has been in Orlando near where the U.S. team has been located. Earlier this week, Balogun left an English U-21 camp with an injury and opted to head for Florida.
“As I've said, we've had dialogue,” Anthony Hudson said about Balogun being in Florida. “He's out here, having a bit of a break, doing some trainings, we've had some discussions. Now it's about him enjoying the rest of his trip.. It's been good because it's been an opportunity for us to share about our program - who we are and what we do. That's it. I hope we get the chance to speak to him again. It's been good to meet him, and I know a few of the guys have spoken to him as well.”
Balogun, 21, has been well known in U.S. Soccer circles for some time. Born in New York, he has spent almost his entire life in England and has represented England at the youth levels. This has been a breakthrough season for him at Reims where he has 17 goals in 27 games. But a call-up to England’s full national is yet to come, and perhaps now that is why he is contemplating a switch.
“I've seen that he's in Florida,” Christian Pulisic said. “I haven't really spoken with him personally but I know some of the guys who know him from previous teams have reached out to him and spoken with him. From our side, we'd love to have him.”
Thank you for looking after us n congrats on the win! @orlandomagic ???????? pic.twitter.com/irPTejF4fm— Balogun (@balogun) March 24, 2023
U.S. Soccer has known about Balogun for some time, dating back to 2018 when he even made an appearances with the U.S. U-18 team. U.S. U-20 head coach Tab Ramos tried to get Balogun to switch ahead of the 2019 U-20 World Cup, but while the dialogue was positive, Balogun opted to remain with England. Last March, Gregg Berhalter visited Balogun when he was on loan at Middlesbrough but weeks later, he was with the U.S. U-20 team.
So, there has been smoke for awhile around Balogun.
The birth place of #DualNationalPanic. https://t.co/xX0VT3W24X— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) March 22, 2023
But there are still some things we don’t know. Is Balogun seriously considering switching? Why now and not last year before the World Cup? Why now when the U.S. team is operating without a sporting director and is under an interim head coach? Why wouldn’t he wait until he sees the next direction of the team? Will he attend the USMNT games vs. El Salvador?
Finally, is he in Florida on an invitation from U.S. Soccer?
It’s fair to speculate that maybe he is just observing the U.S. team for information. It’s also worth considering that Balogun might be leveraging his dual nationality to put pressure on the English national team for a call-up. It’s certainly possible that England would be his first choice given that he’s lived almost his entire life there and has been developed at one of the big London clubs.
That being said and reading the tea leaves, the situation seems very favorable to the United States. This is how other dual nationals have come to decide to play for the United States – taking time to evaluate the program, weighing decisions, and then making a decision. Generally, when it gets this far, the U.S. has an exceptional record of getting the dual national players it has wanted.
Maybe the fact that the United States played England well at the World Cup made a favorable impression. But also the U.S. team needs a striker as well.
But Arsenal goalkeeper Matt Turner said it best this week when asked about Balogun – who he got to know in Arsenal’s preseason. He insisted that any decision like this must be made with the heart. Players can have quality, and Balogun certainly does, but international soccer is not club soccer. A player has to really want to be with that national team to be at his best.
"The decision has to come from the heart," Turner said. "It's not necessarily an easy task always to come and play in these CONCACAF games. It's a tough region at times... We'd be really grateful to have him. But his heart needs to be in it."
That’s why recruitment has to be done up to a point, and then slowed down to let the player come to the ultimate decision himself. It doesn’t always work out – look at Julian Araujo or Jens Cajuste. But it’s imperative that the players make a big affirmative step towards reaching the decision.
At this point, you’d like the U.S. chances but if he opts for England, the U.S. is playing this the right way.
Amid all the talk about Reyna and Balogun, there is still a U.S. game tonight away at Grenada. As Anthony Hudson has said, these games are always tricky. The U.S. team is trying to dust itself off after the World Cup and get back to business ahead of this summer. For Grenada, this is the World Cup. It’s not every day the small country can host a World Cup knockout participant for a meaningful game.
For the U.S., the test is to not play down to the level of its opponents.
Hudson said Christian Pulisic will be the team’s captain against Grenada, with Tyler Adams out. These games are more tests of maturity and it will be interesting to see how the U.S. team responds.
Hudson will probably not want to strike a balance between playing key players and looking at newer players as well. Giving a look at Johnny Cardoso in place of Tyler Adams seems like a real possibility.
The wing position will also be interesting as Christian Pulisic will certainly start but without Weah in camp anymore, the other wing position could go to Brenden Aaronson or Alejandro Zendejas. It could go to Reyna, but I would expect him to start centrally as the No. 10.
Central defense will also test different options as Ream is the only centerback on this roster from the World Cup. Miles Robinson will test his recovery. Mark McKenzie is back and looking to turn his strong season into a consistent spot on the team. Auston Trusty is in camp for the first time. Hudson will try to divide playing time.
Ricardo Pepi and Daryl Dike both have a lot to prove given that Haji Wright, Jesus Ferreira, and Josh Sargent continue to score at the club level and now Balogun is making noise about joining the team. Dike and Pepi are having good club seasons but can gel together.
For me, one of the big things I am curious to see for the U.S. team this window is set piece deliveries. That was a huge problem for the team for most of the cycle and the team was never routinely dangerous from set pieces. As well as Pulisic has played for the national team, free kick taking hasn’t been his strong point. Is this a time they let others like Dest, Reyna, or someone else take it.
Overall, coaches and fans will have to take any positive result tonight with a grain of salt given the level of competition – but things like chemistry and having the team continuing to gel is still relevant this window.
U.S. U-20’s in Marbella
The United States U-20 team lost a tough 4-0 decision to France in Marbella, Spain on Wednesday. As always with youth results, it’s never wise to read too much into things. The team had only been together for two days before playing the game and head coach Mikey Varas is also using this game to evaluate players.
With this result, the U.S. paid a price for not finishing a number of very good chances in the first 50 minutes. If the U.S. buries one or two of those chances, including a Diego Luna penalty attempt which was saved, it would have been quite a bit more competitive. The U.S. team was in this game before falling apart.
But the main thing right now is player evaluation.
Mauricio Cuevas had a tough game at right back and Alejandro Alvarado struggled in the midfield. Jonathan Gomez at left back was unable to push forward and Darren Yapi came in at center forward a bit too late.
Despite missing the penalty and a few other chances, Diego Luna was generally very dangerous. The same could be said for Quinn Sullivan who continues to have an excellent cycle for the U.S. U-20 team despite minutes not being there for Philadelphia.
Against England on Saturday, the U.S. team will likely shift things up. Yapi might get a big opportunity to start and he has a lot at stake. A good outing could see him make the team as a No. 9 – which the team has been playing without for over a year.
Josh Wynder should also get a big chance in central defense and his stock is rising. Jalen Neal and Brandon Craig have likely secured a spot on the World Cup team but there should be a spot open for a third centerback.
I also expect Michael Halliday to get a look at right back after a strong start to the season with Orlando. Jack McGlynn should also be tested in central midfield. Owen Wolff is also another strong emerging candidate who has a big opportunity.
A lot of these players are also competing against talented players who are not in this camp – Caleb Wiley, Brian Gutierrez, and Jalen Neal are likely locks. But others like Noel Buck and Ben Cremaschi are knocking at the door.
Meanwhile in Argentina
On Friday morning, the United States U-19 team posted a 3-1 win over Argentina’s U-17 team which is preparing for CONMEBOL U-17 World Cup qualifying next week. The age gap was significant, so the U.S. team was favored. But it’s still good that the U.S. U-19 team did what a favored team should do – win.
The U.S. goals came from Sergio Oregel, Korede Osundina and Rodrigo Neri.
The U.S. U-19's defeat Argentina 3-1 today in Buenos Aires.— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) March 24, 2023
- 12th min: Sergio Oregel (Chicago Fire)
- 30th min: Korede Osundina (Orange County SC)
- 59th min: Rodrigo Neri (Atletico Madrid)
- This was Argentina's U-17 team ahead of CONMEBOL U-17 WC quals next week
Then last night, Argentina’s full national team defeated Panama 2-0 with two second half goals.
Atlanta United’s Thiago Almada, 21, played the second half for Argentina and scored the opening goal off a rebound from a Messi free kick which hit the post.
Atlanta United’s Thiago Almada opening the scoring tonight for Argentina in a 2-0 win over Panama. This guy is on another level right now. pic.twitter.com/q0tYnwJuRj— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) March 24, 2023
Almada is on another level right now. He is among the most talented players to ever play in MLS. It will be really interesting what the selling price is for Almada and if Atlanta can hang onto him for the whole season.