Folarin Balogun could debut for USMNT vs. Mexico in Concacaf Nations League: What to know about USA’s striker

As the United States prepares to face Mexico in Concacaf Nations League (catch all the action only on Paramount+), there is a growing sense of anticipation as it’s expected that 21-year-old Folarin Balogun will make his debut after committing to represent the Red, White, and Blue. While he only has training sessions under his belt, the hype is not restricted to the fans, as many of his new teammates are echoing the same idea. Nobody can wait to see America’s new striker on the field.

While that might only raise expectations for his performance as the team desperately searches for a number nine to lead the line, hearing that from Balogun’s teammates is exactly what you look for at this stage for a player whose development has been quite unique in the global game. After coming through the Arsenal academy with Yunus Musah, to various loans and representing England at the youth level, Balogun was able to find consistency in a breakout season with Reims in Ligue 1 that saw him score 21 goals becoming the first U.S. men’s international to score 20 or more goals in a top five league. Let’s break down what you need to know about America’s new star striker.

Balogun’s early development in London

By: James Benge

That Balogun was a prospect of real talent was not in doubt from the time he joined Arsenal’s academy setup as an eight year old, the Gunners beating their north London rivals Tottenham to his services. A path to regular football at the Emirates Stadium, however, has long seemed shrouded in uncertainty. It was never a question of talent, if anything the problem was that Arsenal had too much in that one position. Eddie Nketiah, three years older, had grasped his big chance under Arsene Wenger and looked to be establishing himself as the depth option penalty box poacher that Balogun might have been. Also ahead of him in the race for a squad role seemed to be Tyreece John-Jules, more of an all-rounder striker who could link play and drift wide, though he would struggle with injuries during loan spells in the English lower leagues before dropping off the pace.

Balogun was winning titles – the Liam Brady Cup ahead of Bayern Munich and Juventus in 2016, the Under-18 Premier League in 2018-19 – and scoring goals by the boatload, modeling his game on heroes such as Edinson Cavani and Robert Lewandowski. That much, however, was almost a given for a top forward at youth level. At 16 years of age he was challenged by his coaches to improve his attitude and broaden his game. “I’m not somebody who needs to be told two or three times,” he would subsequently note. “After that conversation, I just got my head down and luckily I turned things around really quickly.”

That he did, and by the time he turned 20 he was dominating the Premier League 2 youth competition, scoring 13 goals in 11 games at the start of the 2021-22 season, having already enjoyed some impressive run outs with the first team in the Europa League group stages. For a moment the path opened up for Balogun in the Arsenal first team, positive COVID-19 tests for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette and an illness for Nketiah forcing Mikel Arteta to throw him in at the deep end on the opening day of the season at Brentford. That was a step too far for Balogun, but it brought renewed attention on his role with the Gunners at a time when his contract was approaching its expiry point. For a time it seemed like the youngster was bound for the exit door, Brentford and Sheffield United had bids rejected and European clubs including Stuttgart lined up to secure a pre-contract agreement with him. It took a four year deal worth in excess of £30,000 a week, an almighty deal for a player who has played only twice in the Premier League, to get Balogun signed on the dotted line.

From there onwards Balogun and Arsenal set about finding the game time he would need if he was to ever challenge Gabriel Jesus and Nketiah for a place in Arteta’s XI. A challenging loan spell with Championship side Middlesbrough brought three goals and three assists in 21 appearances. At youth level Balogun had been able to assert himself on smaller defenders, dropping down the English pyramid meant learning how to score when center backs could simply bully you off the ball. The summer of 2022 saw the striker take his development into his own hand, contracting individual skill coaches who would drill him constantly in one facet above all else, bursting in behind the opposition backline and converting. He could have showcased those skills on another loan in the second tier or indeed as Ivan Toney‘s backup on loan at Brentford. Instead, he chose to look further afield and made the move across the Channel to Reims.

Balogun makes his mark in France

By: Jonathan Johnson

It is safe to say that few people expected Balogun to explode onto the scene while on loan in the way that he did as part of a Reims side which defied expectations under Will Still in 2022-23. With 21 goals and two assists in Ligue 1, as well as an additional strike in the Coupe de France, the 21-year-old was one of the revelations of the French season, so it was little surprise that his international allegiance became a hot topic. Five goals and one assist from his opening six outings immediately placed Balogun on the radar and he rarely slowed up for more than two games at a time. The Brooklyn-born talent’s stock is high in the French game and it would not be a surprise to see him join one of the bigger Championnat sides. 

UEFA soccer could be on offer for the 2023-24 term considering the reputation he made for himself as a marksman with unerring accuracy in the Champagne region. That ability to put the ball in the back of the net is arguably what impressed the USMNT enough to push to the front of the queue to sign him up, and his time in Ligue 1 so far has shown us that he is a pure finisher above all else. Balogun can provide the occasional assist for a teammate, but he thrives as the main focal point of the attack where the focus is locating scoring positions and doing the business. Playmaking and build-up play have not been his strong suit while there are even elements of his attacking game — such as his aerial ability, positional awareness and work rate — which still need a bit of work. The U.S. has been crying out for a predatory lone striker ahead of 2026 and the evidence from Balogun’s time in France so far is that they might have finally found him.

However you slice it, Balogun’s numbers were impressive this year. His 21 goals were tied for fourth in Ligue 1, but even though six of those were penalties, it still undersells his level of threat. If anything, he could have had more — his 15 non-penalty goals were somewhat below his 21 non-penalty expected goals which was the second best total in the league only behind only PSG talisman Kylian Mbappe. On a per 90-minute basis, Mbappe was the only player in France’s topflight to best Balogun’s 0.63. These numbers all suggest a player who is no flash in the pan, and, if anything, is likely to improve quickly as his finishing catches up to the strength of the chances he is creating.  

Ready to shine for the USMNT

If all goes well, it won’t take long for Balogun to win his first trophy with the USMNT as they’ll only need two victories to secure a second consecutive Nations League title. Hopefully, he can get his first goal for the national team out of the way during the games, but even if Balogun doesn’t, his presence in the box will make it easier for those around him to make a difference. It’s important to note that while strikers like Ricardo Pepi, Jesus Ferreira, and Josh Sargent have scored goals for their clubs but then struggled when called into the national team, none of them have had the pedigree that Balogun carries.

Similarly to the capture of Musah in midfield, Balogun is someone trained in a top technical setup in Arsenal, and his development is likely to continue going forward. The areas where he has struggled in France, likely won’t be issues with this USMNT team, who really just need him to score goals, but his work rate will be a question mark due to this being a side that presses aggressively, an environment that doesn’t exist at the clubs he’s played at the last couple of years. The United States hasn’t had a proper striker to lead the line since Jozy Altidore, and make no mistake, the hopes for Balogun is that he far exceeds Altidore, and right now he can bring some of the imposing presence that has been missing in the box as of late. A poacher who can find the back of the net, Balogun can let Christian Pulisic‘s playmaking ability shine.

Also, because of Balogun’s presence in the box, one of the biggest winners of this move is Gio Reyna. While Reyna’s Dortmund weren’t able to win the Bundesliga title, his goals were a large reason why they were in the race until the final day. With a proper nine leading the line, that not only creates more space for Reyna to shoot but also provides him with an outlet for his impressive playmaking ability. Without Tyler Adams for these games, Reyna could get the chance to play as a number 10 ahead of Weston McKennie and Musah allowing this team to swarm Mexico in attack. It’s the start of a bright new era for the team.

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