After winning an international recruiting battle with England for prolific 21-year-old striker Folarin Balogun, many are expecting the Arsenal prospect to immediately jump into the United States‘ lineup for next week’s CONCACAF Nations League semifinal against rival Mexico.
Balogun isn’t among them.
“I’m not assuming that I’m going to come in and start,” Balogun said Friday after FOX Sports asked how he’s expecting his hotly anticipated debut match with the U.S. to play out. “That’s not really the mentality I have in life. I’m looking to just impress the manager, and if he feels that it’s right for me to play, then that’s great. And if not, if he wants me to come on and try to make an impact [as a substitute], that’s what I’ll do.”
Before Balogun committed to the USMNT last month, players and staff — and yes, national team fans, too — did everything they could to make the coveted youngster feel welcome. The New York-born, London-raised Balogun cited those good vibes shortly after his one-time switch from England, which he’d represented at the youth level, was approved by FIFA.
Now that he’s in camp, Balogun is competing for minutes just like everyone else. And although he scored 21 times for Reims France’s Ligue 1 last season — making him the first American to surpass the 20-goal mark in one of Europe’s Big Five leagues — he’s also the new guy.
Friday marked Balogun’s fourth training session with the U.S. His main competition at the striker position, Ricardo Pepi, has been a regular for the Americans since 2021 and is also hoping to occupy a major role following a strong season overseas. Pepi scored in his last two U.S. matches, a pair of Nations League wins in March, and could easily stay in interim coach B.J. Callaghan’s lineup for the high-stakes grudge match against El Tri.
Besides, historically it’s rare for any newcomer to start in his USMNT debut. U.S. standout Christian Pulisic won his first cap off the bench. Same with Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, who share the program’s all-time scoring record with 57 goals apiece. There’s a precedent here.
“He’s gonna have to earn his right to play just like everybody else does,” U.S. and Arsenal goalkeeper Matt Turner said earlier this week of Balogun, who he befriended during the Gunners preseason last summer. “When he gets his chances, hopefully he puts the ball in the back of the net.”
Balogun has proven that he can. For most of last season he was within striking distance of Paris Saint-Germain superstar Kylian Mbappé atop the Ligue 1 scoring charts before Mbappé pulled away toward the end of the year. The USMNT has never had enough quality up top. There’s a reason U.S. Soccer made such a huge deal about landing Balogun.
Still, developing chemistry with fellow attackers is especially important for center forwards, who are often at the mercy of the service they get for opportunities to finish.
“It’s still very early,” Balogun said when asked where is was in that process. “I’m still getting to know my teammates on the pitch and off the pitch, and of course this is not something that will come overnight. So it’s an element of patience that we all need to have in order to get the right relationships.
“We’re definitely working towards that,” Balogun continued. “But in terms of expectations and stuff like that, I know that me coming into this team, I’m coming in with a mindset that I need to earn my place.”
Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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