Why the USMNT should be doing all they can to convince Arsenal's loan hotshot Balogun to be their new No.9
As 2022 came to a close, Ligue 1's goalscoring charts looked just about as expected. The usual suspects were all there: Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, Lionel Messi. It's a good reminder that Ligue 1 remains Paris Saint-Germain's world.
However, since the start of the season, there is an unexpected striker that has made himself a part of that world, scoring goal after goal to statistically push him up next to PSG's big-hitters at the top.
His name? Folarin Balogun, and there's a chance that he may be the man best equipped to end the U.S. men's national team's No.9 problem once and for all.
Balogun is set to lead Reims against that trio of PSG stars on Sunday as he looks to continue his incredible rise through Ligue 1. The on-loan Arsenal forward currently sits tied for seventh in goals in France's top-flight, with his recent two-game drought seeing him fall down the list a little.
And it's fair to call a two-game league scoreless streak a drought for Balogun. He's been that good.
His rise has led to plenty of headlines regarding his future at the club level. This is the 21-year-old's first real taste of top-flight games, having featured sparingly for Arsenal in recent years while spending part of last season on loan at Middlesbrough.
He's on loan with Reims for the time being but, at some point, he may return to Arsenal. Whether it's this year or some point down the line, it may be on Mikel Arteta's mind that Balogun comes back and competes with Gabriel Jesus and Eddie Nketiah, having proven that he's capable of being unleashed at senior level.
"Before I moved, Mikel just wanted me to develop as a man. It was kind of like an open answer and it was for me to interpret what I meant by ‘develop as a man’," he told Metro.co.uk.
"By moving abroad, I’m starting to learn what he meant by that. It doesn’t just mean on the pitch but also off the pitch. I think by the time I go back I’ll be in a better place to compete than I was before I left."
But, while Balogun's club future is certainly something to keep an eye on, so too is his international situation as the striker could be a legitimate game-changer for several national teams.
Born in New York, Balogun is eligible for the USMNT and represented the U.S. for a tournament at youth level. He has said that the call-up was a good experience for him and that he remains in contact with several of the team-mates he met within the U.S. system.
The U-18 #USMNT ran rampant over Bulgaria 5-0 at the Vaclav Jezek Youth Tournament overseas. Goals from: Gabe Segal (x2), Thomas Roberts, Indiana Vassilev, and Folarin Balogun. Ulysses Llanez assisted twice. pic.twitter.com/DgJOGfTRkd— U.S. Soccer YNT (@USYNT) August 22, 2018
Recruiting Balogun would be a coup for the U.S., similar to former Arsenal youngster, Yunus Musah, who turned his back on England. However, getting the 21-year-old on board is anything but a sure thing, as he has plenty of options.
The most prominent? England of course. He moved to London as a toddler and grew up at the Arsenal academy. He's featured prominently for the Three Lions at youth level and has never fully wavered when it's come to his commitment to them.
Nigeria are also in the mix. Both of Balogun's parents are Nigerian and he still feels a strong connection with his family's heritage.
"Above everything, I feel English," he told L'Equipe in October, "but I also have an American side, because I have family in New York and I love going there. I have my grandmother and cousins in Lagos, even if I haven’t been there since I was very young. My mother sometimes speaks to me in Yoruba and it is important to me."
He added: "Just like my future at the club level, I am not closing any doors regarding international selection. All options remain open."
While all three national teams will have a convincing argument, and while the decision itself will almost certainly come down to a variety of factors, it can easily be argued that it's the USMNT that needs him most and, by proxy, offer him the easiest path towards a meaningful role.
Heading into 2023, the striker position remains the biggest question mark in the U.S. team, not counting the head coach, of course. While the U.S. is loaded with talent on the wings and in midfield, there really hasn't been anyone to step up and claim that striker spot.
Jesus Ferreira, Josh Sargent and Haji Wright got their chance at the World Cup, but none of them really seized it. Jordan Pefok and Ricardo Pepi remain in the mix, and the latter, in particular, could still grow into the guy the U.S. needs. Daryl Dike is healthy and Brandon Vazquez is finally involved, giving plenty of different stylistic options for the next coach to choose from.
But none are playing at a level quite like Balogun, who is looking dominant in Ligue 1. At 21, he has incredible potential and time to develop his game, having only shown glimpses of what he truly can be. Balogun, in many ways, is a modern striker: quick, comfortable with the ball at his feet, willing to run and press and, most importantly, ready to put the ball into the back of the net.
If he were to commit to the U.S., and that is a big if considering the current state of the program, he would instantly find himself right in the mix to be the No.9. Should he continue to progress and play at a high level, there would be little stopping him from at least contending to be at the 2026 World Cup.
The same could not be said about his other options, England or Nigeria. Gareth Southgate's side will be in no rush to change Harry Kane, who should have one more World Cup left in him, plus there's Marcus Rashford, who may be the world's most in-form player right now. Nigeria, too, are well set, with Napoli star Victor Osimhen destined for big things and still only 24.
Balogun is another who appears destined for the top, and there's no reason to doubt that he could someday be a key player for England or Nigeria. But the fact is that everything is there for him to be pivotal for the U.S. in the here and now on the road to a World Cup on home soil.
Unfortunately, given the current state of the federation, giving Balogun the full recruiting pitch will be difficult, at least for now. Without a sporting director, general manager or head coach, the USMNT has plenty of problems to address in-house before looking outside.
But recruiting Balogun will likely be one of the first orders of business for whoever is brought in to lead the U.S. program into 2026. Whoever is still there, at the moment, will also be keeping a close eye on him, just like they do every other dual-national star.
Balogun is too talented not to watch closely. He has the potential to be a key player, much like Musah, whose decision to make the switch to the U.S. at an early age has paid dividends already in the form of a call-up for a first of what should be a few World Cups. Like Musah, going after Balogun feels like something of a long shot, but the Valencia star's commitment showed that anything is possible.
So will Balogun join the U.S., or will he go down as one of the biggest dual-national misses in USMNT history?
"I'm going to make a decision soon," he told Ligue 1's website in November, "and that decision will not depend on what the media or people think but on what is best for me. We will talk about it quietly with my family."
That decision may just be one of the USMNT's defining stories of 2023 and, ultimately, 2026.