The United States is one of fastest growing football nations in the world. Over the last 30 years we have been hoping, maybe even praying, for a savior. Every great football nation has a Ronaldo, a Neymar, a Messi. The US will never have that. Or at least we thought we wouldn’t. We’ve always had to succeed as a team rather than on the shoulders of a superstar.
But it seems that our prayers may have been answered. Whereas the US seemingly always figures out the goalkeeping position and sometimes struggles to find a left-back, this generation may be the best collective we have to win the World Cup. And I think Folarin Balogun has figured that out. That’s why he recently switched nationalities and will represent the United States, the country of his birth, even though he grew up in England and has represented them at youth level.
For those of you who won’t know who Balogun is, let me introduce you to one of the biggest emerging stars in world football. This 21-year-old product of Arsenal’s Hale End youth academy (along with the likes of Bukayo Saka) counts Thierry Henry as a mentor and has had a breakout season in France’s Ligue 1, scoring 20 league goals this season on loan at Reims. He was also born one day short of the Fourth of July. You can’t get much more American than that.
Yet Balogun had a big choice to make. England enter every competition a little differently than the US. Their expectation is always to win the whole thing – which has set them up for disappointment at virtually every World Cup since 1966. The English still believe that the World Cup is “coming home,” as if that’s where it belongs.
Yet when England fail, idiotic sections of their fanbase remind the world that they can be a vicious group. One only needs to look back at the Euro 2020 final and the treatment that England’s Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Saka received after missing their penalties. The racist abuse that those three athletes had to endure was nothing short of disgusting, and a number of England “fans” became the ugliest support system possible.
— USMNTrev (@Eyesandvibes) May 19, 2023
So one has to wonder if this factored into Balogun’s decision. Perhaps he asked himself which is the better story: to be a part of a team that’s expected to win, or to be part of a dream. Whereas the United States is, or at least should be, about the American Dream, Balogun certainly personifies it now.
He proved that several months back when he visited the US. He declined an invite from England’s U-21 team. He visited Orlando, which happened to be where the US were preparing for their next match. While in Florida, he also visited a New York Yankees spring training game and was tracked the whole time by American supporters. He later said he was overwhelmed by the “love” he felt from US supporters. It must have felt great to be so wanted. At the same time, England coach Gareth Southgate told the media: “We cannot go and give first-team call-ups to someone just because we don’t want them to go somewhere else.” If there’s anything Southgate wishes he could take back, I’m guessing it would be that statement.
We’ve seen this before, with dual citizens opting to play for the US – including Timmy Tillman just this week. But this one’s different: This is the first time the player in question is out of his teens, has a dual citizenship of a football nation that’s better than the US, and that nation still wants him. (That wasn’t the case with former players from Germany, the Netherlands, or elsewhere, including some who chose to play for Mexico.) Christian Pulisic made the decision at 17 to represent the US over Croatia with a lot of input from his father. Balogun, on the other hand, is an adult. Whether it was irony, circumstance or coincidence, the same World Cup cycle that Pulisic chose the US over Croatia was the one in which the US didn’t qualify for the tournament and Croatia made the final (a team that went to three extra-times in a row sure could have used an energetic teenage super sub). We’re hoping to flip that story in Balogun’s case.
I really like this USMNT squad. They have weapons that can beat anybody – and a goalscoring forward is the missing piece that will make the whole machine fire on all cylinders. I hesitate to put so much pressure on a 21-year-old, but the addition of Balogun is potentially a massive gamechanger for the US.
I’d like to think that Balogun knows more than I do right now – that he knows who the next US coach is and that he’s had that conversation. Hopefully he’s stated something along the lines of: “I’m here to score goals, not play defense.”
Balogun will play for the US not only this summer, but in the World Cup in 2026. We Americans have always had hope, but this is the first time maybe ever that we may want to raise our expectations. As someone who played in his own country in a World Cup, I understand what those emotions feel like and the pride that you have when you take the field representing your nation. I personally can’t wait to see what this group is capable of under those circumstances.
American fans: Thank you for being the essence of support. It may have just landed us the player we’ve always needed to take us to the promised land. If you want to keep your expectations low and take the very American fan approach of: “We’re just happy to be along for the ride,” that’s fine. You can feel surprised when we actually have a chance to win the whole damn tournament in 2026.
I won’t be.
Eric Wynalda is a broadcaster who scored 34 goals in 106 appearances for USA and played at three World Cups