‘I need to earn my place’: Flo Balogun, the USMNT’s savior striker, arrives for Mexico showdown

Folarin Balogun, who is coming off a 21-goal season in France’s Ligue 1, steps into the USMNT spotlight this week in the CONCACAF Nations League. (Photo by John Dorton/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

The hype began stirring when Folarin Balogun was just 16, well before he even stepped onto a professional soccer field. It started with a tweet, about a boy in the Arsenal academy and his birthplace. It then subsisted for years on social media and message boards, and in dreams. Balogun, who was born in New York and raised in London, had only once accepted a U.S. youth national team call-up; he’d otherwise played for England. But until he played for the senior team, among USMNT obsessives desperate for a striker, there was hope.

And so, in March, with rumors swirling and a recruitment process in full swing behind the scenes, when Balogun posted a seemingly innocuous photo on Instagram, those obsessives went to work.

They had, of course, been tracking Balogun’s every digital move, especially after he’d responded to an England roster snub with a cryptic message: “In life, go where you’re appreciated.” What they didn’t know was that Balogun, with help from U.S. Soccer, had planned a trip to Florida, at least in part to connect with the USMNT. All parties had attempted to keep his whereabouts private. Before posting the photo, Balogun ran it by his agent, and got a green light.

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

But U.S. fans began dissecting it. A palm tree became the first hint. The other clue was half of a painted slogan on the side of a mostly-obscured building — which one amateur detective, via internet sleuthing, identified as Pubs Pub in downtown Orlando. And almost instantly, in Instagram comments and DMs, the American flag emoji began flying.

Balogun’s trip, which featured a meeting with then-USMNT manager Anthony Hudson and dinner with players, plus VIP treatment at Orlando Magic and New York Yankees games, and more — “this was the equivalent of a college recruiting visit,” U.S. Soccer CEO JT Batson told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday — sent the hype into overdrive. And it hasn’t really slowed down since. Balogun committed to the USMNT in May. Before he’d even reported to camp, interviewers briefed him on “a U.S. audience who is already fully on the Balo hype train.”

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

“It’s been overwhelming at times,” Balogun admitted.

But then he arrived in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, ahead of his likely debut in Thursday’s CONCACAF Nations League semifinal against Mexico (10 p.m. ET, Paramount+/Univision), and went to work.

He escaped the “noise surrounding me coming,” as he termed it, and embraced a competition with a 20-year-old who, less than two years ago, had also satisfied every USMNT fan’s craving for a striker of the future.

Ricardo Pepi burst onto the scene as a World Cup qualifying savior, and earned a $20 million European transfer, and looked like the answer at a problematic position until he circumstantially plateaued. Now he’s the incumbent, back on the rise, and a reason Balogun knows: “I need to earn my place.”

That, of course, is what interim coach B.J. Callaghan told Balogun on the phone a couple weeks ago:

“Listen, you have to put yourself out there, and you have to integrate with the group. We're gonna work as hard as we can to integrate you. At the same time, it's your responsibility, on the field and off the field, to become part of this group as quick as we can.”

He has been doing that since arriving in California last Tuesday, soaking in principles of play and acclimating to an already-refined culture. He’s been smiling at team meals and learning golf from Weston McKennie, with Walker Zimmerman and Christian Pulisic providing real-time analysis, encouragement and laughs. “Balo,” as he’s known, is generally introverted, perhaps even shy; but he’s easy-going and eager to bond.

“And of course, this is not something that will come overnight,” he knows. “So, there's an element of patience that we all need to have in order to get the right relationships. But we're definitely working towards that.”

Pepi, on the other hand, already has those relationships. He’s already started twice against Mexico. He already knows the system and style, and the coaching staff’s expectations, which are all similar to what they were under former coach Gregg Berhalter, according to players. That familiarity and sweat equity could earn Pepi a place in Thursday’s lineup, as the USMNT attempts to extend its unbeaten run in the regional rivalry to six games.

“Of course, we both want the starting spot,” Pepi said last week. “So we're always gonna be competing in a healthy way.” Callaghan said he looked forward to watching that competition.

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

Meanwhile, though, the hype remains almost irresistible. Balogun’s first week of training, after a 21-goal season in France’s Ligue 1, has done nothing to temper it. TUDN’s Michele Giannone reported a sampling of reviews he’s heard from folks around the USMNT: “Balo is the real thing.” “Balo is legit.” “The hype is real.”

Yunus Musah, Balogun’s former academy mate at Arsenal, provided media with a similarly flattering and simple scouting report. “It's kinda self-explanatory,” Musah said. “Everyone's seen what he's done this season. You have to feed him the ball, and he's gonna put it in the goal, you know? That's pretty much it.”

In other words, the yearslong wait full of fluctuating optimism was worth it.

When Balogun takes the field Thursday, even if it’s off the bench as a second-half sub, anticipation will climax on a grand stage. Teammates have given him a rivalry primer — “just the backstory, and recent results, and they just explained how big an occasion this is,” Balogun said. “Of course,” he added, “there'd be no better way to introduce myself.”

But occasions, he said, don’t faze him. Hype and 60,000 green-clad fans at Allegiant Stadium in Vegas could blend to create pressure, but “I'm used to the pressure,” he said, as if to assuage any concern. “The pressure I have for myself's internal. What I hear outside is never gonna be more than what I expect of myself. So it's not a big problem for me.”