Why Folarin Balogun, a coveted dual-national striker, has USMNT fans in a tizzy
Folarin Balogun is one of the brightest young strikers in England's vast player pool, and so, naturally, he was supposed to be in Leicester and London this week playing soccer. He was named to the England Under-21 roster for a pair of friendlies. Shortly after scoring his 17th goal of a breakout season on Sunday, he was expected to join up with the squad.
But Balogun, the New York-born son of Nigerian parents, has not been in England.
He's been in Florida, where the U.S. men's national team was training this week, on something of a recruiting visit.
His stateside presence does not mean that he is committing to play for the USMNT. He will not appear in two CONCACAF Nations League games this week and next. To do so, he'd need to apply to FIFA for a one-time switch of association from England to the U.S. A FIFA spokesman confirmed to Yahoo Sports on Thursday that Balogun has not done that.
“My international future is not decided yet, in terms of who I’ll play for," Balogun told Sky Sports in a recent interview.
But he has heard the American recruiting pitch. He has spoken with some U.S. players. He's had "some discussions" with USMNT staff, interim coach Anthony Hudson confirmed Thursday night. Hudson later added: "It's been an opportunity for us just to share about our program, and who we are, and what we do."
Meanwhile, across the pond, England U21 coach Lee Carsley said Thursday that he'd spoken to "Flo," as Balogun is nicknamed, this week, and "he didn’t give me any inkling that there was an issue or that he was thinking of doing anything in the future. He said he is looking forward to the summer," when the England U21s will contend for their European championship.
"But," Carsley admitted in a separate interview — when asked about Balogun's eligibility to represent the U.S. and Nigeria, and his international future being up in the air — "it's something that we're aware of and we need to keep an eye on."
Fans, meanwhile, have been keeping both eyes glued to the situation, sleuthing for clues about Balogun's whereabouts. The realization that Balogun, in a Wednesday Instagram post, appeared to be in Orlando sent American soccer Twitter into a tizzy. The following day, as the USMNT departed Florida for Grenada (they'll return Saturday ahead of a Monday game in Orlando), Balogun posted a photo of himself in sweaty athletic gear, with a towel around his neck, and the caption: "This heat!"
Which, of course, led fans to their weather apps. It was 53 degrees and raining in London. It was 58 and damp in Reims, France, Balogun's temporary club home. It was 83 degrees and sunny in Orlando.
This heat! 😮💨 pic.twitter.com/N9C69NOLzm
— Balogun (@balogun) March 23, 2023
On Thursday evening, with the USMNT down in the Caribbean, Balogun attended an Orlando Magic game. The NBA team even made him a custom jersey. Each progressive update fueled an online frenzy and fanatical excitement — because a commitment from the 21-year-old forward would instantaneously better the USMNT.
Who is Folarin Balogun?
Balogun was born in Brooklyn — he has said that his parents were visiting family in New York at the time — but spent the vast majority of his childhood in London, which is where he learned the game that he grew to love.
He started at a local club, Aldersbrook, and played informally with friends. Then an Arsenal scout saw him at an all-day tournament and approached his father. Thus began a weeks-long trial, during which Tottenham called his father and also offered a trial. And so, for a short but crazy period, young Folarin would train with Arsenal's academy on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, and with Tottenham's the rest of the week.
He eventually chose Arsenal, and rose through a fiercely competitive academy, first as a winger and then as a goal-scoring center forward. The move to striker unleashed him. A prolific season earned him his first youth national team call-ups — with England's U17s — and placed him on American radars.
U.S. fans and coaches have tracked him ever since, and increasingly this season, his first with regular playing time at a first-division club. After spending the latter half of last season on loan at Middlesbrough in England's second-tier Championship, and with the Arsenal first team proving difficult to crack, the Gunners sent him on loan to Reims in France.
He started with a bang in Ligue 1 and never really slowed down. He's scored 17 goals in 27 appearances, just two fewer than league-leading Kylian Mbappé, and underlying numbers suggest Balogun's fiery form is no fluke. He leads all Ligue 1 players in non-penalty Expected Goals, a combined measure of shot quantity and quality. He is excelling at a firmly mid-table club, meaning his success is not a product of brilliance all around him. He is clever, quick and clinical with both feet.
So, if he were to commit to the USMNT, he would likely become the top striker in the player pool, regardless of age, and a favorite to start at the 2026 World Cup.
Could Folarin Balogun commit to USMNT soon?
Balogun has said that he will make a decision on his international future soon, but has not explicitly hinted at what that decision might be.
On the day of England's latest senior roster release, after being omitted from Gareth Southgate's squad for Euro 2024 qualifiers, Balogun posted a cryptic message on Instagram: "In life, go where you're appreciated."
His social media posts this week, coupled with England's announcement that he'd withdrawn from the U21 squad and would "miss the forthcoming matches after reporting an injury" — after playing 90 minutes for Reims on Sunday — only deepened external intrigue.
Hudson, speaking Thursday night, did not mention any injury. He said Balogun was "out here havin' a bit of a break, and some training, and some discussions. Now it's about him enjoying the rest of his trip."
Carsley, the England U21 coach, said Thursday that Balogun "felt his right hamstring" on Sunday, and that doctors had confirmed the minor injury. "So you can only take what they’re saying to be accurate."
Balogun spent his youth career with England. He played once for the U.S. U18s, at a tournament in the Czech Republic, but because it was not an official competition, it required no official switch of allegiance. He has continued to represent England in official competitions and friendlies. Carsley said Thursday that Balogun is "connected to what we're doing" and "a big player for us.”
So, as of now, he is an England international. In interviews, he has referred to London as "my city." And "if people ask me where I'm from," he said in November, "I say I'm English."
But he also noted that he's a "mixture" of cultures. He has family in Nigeria. He also has extended family in New York and Atlanta. He has visited New York, and reconnected with his birthplace, and called it "a special feeling."
And "of course," he told Sky recently, "I want to play international football at the highest level, in the World Cup, and I want to compete at the highest level. I want to put myself in positions where I’m performing in front of millions of people.” That will surely play into his decision. He has also said he will consult his family.
He could also be wooed by the USMNT's organic recruiting machine: a diverse, vibrant generation of players similar in age who helped the U.S. land commitments from other dual-nationals, including Yunus Musah and Sergiño Dest. Musah is now part of the machine, and has a prior relationship with Balogun dating back to their days in the Arsenal academy.
Christian Pulisic, the deputy USMNT captain, said Thursday that he has not spoken with Balogun. "But I know some of the guys that know him from previous teams have reached out to him and spoken to him," Pulisic said. "Obviously, from our side, we'd love to have him."
Hudson kept his comments relatively brief, and concluded with: "I hope we get the chance to speak to him again. It's been good to meet him."