Folarin Balogun has whipped American fans into a frenzy - so can the USMNT's new No.9 now justify the hype?

Folarin Balogun Reims 2022-23 HIC 16:9
The Arsenal-owned attacker turned his back on England to declare for the US and will make his eagerly-awaited senior international debut on Thursday

Hype is something that can make or break a player and, at one point or another, every single U.S. men's national team star has had to deal with it. It's only natural, really, for a country that remains so desperate for respect on the world stage. Every player, every prospect, is a chance to earn that respect from the outside world but, before that can happen, American fans often let their hopes and dreams run wild.

Who can forget the excitement that came when Americans first saw a player star at Borussia Dortmund or, later, win the Champions League at Chelsea? How about the moment one was signed by Barcelona - or the time one joined Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus? Remember when the son of a Ballon d'Or winner committed to the USMNT? Before Christian Pulisic, Sergino Dest, Weston McKennie or Tim Weah became World Cup stars, they were first young players that captured the imagination of the American fan.

No player, though, has captured the imagination quite like Folarin Balogun, and no player has been the subject of so much hype. With his debut looming, it seems almost impossible for Balogun to meet the expectations that are now being thrust upon him by a fanbase that has wanted, needed, a striker of his caliber.

Can Balogun live up to the hype? It's far too soon to tell. He hasn't yet worn a USMNT shirt on the field, after all, but the road here, to his likely debut on Thursday night, shows just how much hype still plays a part in the American soccer ecosystem.

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  1. Past examples
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    Past examples

    The hyping up of young players has been a part of the American soccer experience for quite some time. That's not saying that it doesn't happen elsewhere, because it sure does, but American fans are often more in-tune and hopeful when it comes to projecting out their young stars.

    So much talk centers around potential: the potential of a player, the potential of a team, the potential of the U.S. as a soccer country. And, by the time a milestone is reached, the public has moved onto the next thing that gives them a brighter hope for the future.

    Freddy Adu was, perhaps, the first player to really capture mainstream America. Dubbed the Next Pele, Adu, quite obviously, never lived up to the hype thrust upon him as a teenager, but the mantle of American soccer's great hope has been passed on plenty ever since.

    In recent years, it's a title that's been earned by Pulisic and Gio Reyna, among others, as American soccer looks for their first real breakout, world-class star. Pulisic, in particular, has been dealing with hype for the entirety of his career as he bridged the gap from the old guard that missed the 2018 World Cup to the young stars that returned to the top stage in 2022.

  2. The search for a striker

    The search for a striker

    Balogun is the latest player that has caught the eye of the American public and, to understand why, you have to understand the state of the USMNT. For years, the U.S. has cried out for a true, international quality striker. And, even as the country has produced legitimate top-level talent, the USMNT hasn't quite had an elite-level No. 9.

    Clint Dempsey is the closest, having been a star at Fulham, but it's been six years since he last wore a USMNT shirt. Jozy Altidore was right there, too, but, because of his poor stint and England and injury history, he's often underrated by many. In the years since those two left, though, there's been something of a revolving door at striker, with several players being named the striker of the future.

    Ricardo Pepi is the most recent, and he's notably the other striker in this U.S. squad. Daryl Dike would have been in the mix if not for injury issues. Before his move to Werder Bremen, hopes were sky high for Josh Sargent, although he's turned into a solid player after years of frustration in Germany and England. Jesus Ferreira has done well in MLS, but hasn't quite taken off on the international stage, while Haji Wright and Jordan Pefok have gotten looks as well.

    While the likes of Pulisic, McKennie, Weah, Adams and Dest were locking up their spots, none of the above strikers were able to solidify their place in the team. None have scored consistently for club or country and none have really made a case to be the guy of the future.

    Which brings us to the here and now, which brings us to Balogun...

  3. A new hope
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    A new hope

    USMNT followers had kept one eye on Balogun for some time, but everything went into overdrive when it became clear how good he was while on loan with Reims.

    As the goals kept pouring in, the hype built and built. Never had an American-eligible striker scored at a level quite like that. This, after all this time, could be the guy.

    The social media onslaught soon followed, and that only intensified after Balogun himself was photographed in Orlando at the same time as USMNT camp. The weeks after saw a full-on recruiting pitch, with everything Balogun did overloaded with flag and eagle emojis as USMNT fans tried to win him over.

    They did in the end. The U.S. got their guy and now, once again, imaginations are running wild. Fans are already dreaming up scenarios involving Balogun being the guy for the next decade. Just 21 years old, the sky is seemingly the limit for the young striker.

    Still, though, Balogun heads into his USMNT debut with plenty of expectations on his shoulders. Before he's even kicked a ball at the senior international level, he's being anointed as the USMNT's next big star. There's a line between being excited and being overzealous, and it's too soon to tell which side of that American soccer is in relation to Balogun, but it's safe to say that few players have faced more pressure ahead of a debut than the USMNT's next great hope up top.

  4. Outside pressure, internal calm
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    Outside pressure, internal calm

    There is obvious pressure on Balogun heading into his first game. Partly because of the excitement of his impending debut, and partly because that debut will come in a semifinal against Mexico. It's a big game for everyone, but an even bigger one for Balogun, who is eager to make a good first impression.

    "It's a fantastic opportunity, not just for me, but for the team," Balogun said on Friday. "Mexico and the U.S. is the big rivalry and I'm looking forward to it. There's no better way to introduce myself than playing against a big opposition when it matters."

    USMNT interim boss BJ Callaghan wouldn't confirm or deny that Balogun is starting, and Balogun himself says that he isn't expecting to be handed anything despite outside opinions.

    "It's still very early," Balogun said. "I'm still getting to know my teammates, on the pitch and off the pitch. 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 but we're definitely working towards that."

    It's the right mindset to have, of course. Balogun is in this for the long haul, and his legacy, good or bad, won't be written in one night. It's a big game, for sure, and you never forget your debut, but Balogun was brought in for more than just a game against Mexico. Remembering that fact will make Thursday night just a bit easier.

  5. Fitting in nicely
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    Fitting in nicely

    It was only a small glimpse into USMNT camp, but it's clear that Balogun is already part of the group.

    His first-ever golf swings were caught on camera, and they sure looked like they were his first-ever golf swings. Despite McKennie's coaching and the support, and laughter, of his teammates behind him, Balogun proved he's far more capable in an 18-yard box than a tee box.

    It showed, though, that Balogun is comfortable being uncomfortable. It also showed that he's found his place with his new team.

    "It's just great to have him get out there in an uncomfortable situation swinging a golf club for the first time," Brenden Aaronson said. "It goes to show you that he's comfortable with the group. He feels like he's a part of that already and I think that's an amazing start.

    "I think, on the field, he has so much quality so far. In and around the box, you see how easy it is for him to score goals, so it's really good having him in the team and we're really excited to have him. He's an awesome kid."

    Aaronson's position is one that has been backed by several USMNT stars. So far, all reviews have been glowing. You could chalk that up to the guys being media savvy, but it also does appear pretty clear that the group has already taken a liking to Balogun.

    "He's integrated into the team great," Callaghan said. "We've had a lot of conversations with him prior to coming into camp, sort of setting the expectations, and I can tell you that he's been welcomed with open arms from the group.

    "He's integrated himself into the group on the field. I think the things that you see him do at his club that made him have such a great season this season are the same things that we're seeing him pick up when he comes into our environment. A great first 10 days for him, but also want to emphasize that it's just the first days of what we hope is a long national team career."

  6. What comes next?

    What comes next?

    For months, all involved will have been waiting for 1900 local time on Thursday night. In Las Vegas, under the bright lights, Balogun will finally be unveiled to the American public for his first of what will hopefully be many big moments in the spotlight.

    But that will only be the start, of course. Over the next few months and years, Balogun will be a part of a player pool and he, like those that have come before him, will need to prove why he's deserving of superstar status.

    He's been handed it, of course, by a public dying for a natural goalscorer, but it's clear that he hasn't accepted it yet. It will take time for him to truly adjust to his new surroundings, although the good news is that there are still three years standing between the U.S. and the World Cup.

    Can this time be different? Will Balogun finally do what a series of strikers before him couldn't? Time will tell. He certainly has the talent to do just that and it seems he may also have the mentality. That doesn't mean to write off the likes of Pepi, Sargent, Ferreira or Dike, not by a longshot, but it's Balogun's chance to seize a job that, for some time, has been left unclaimed.

    The hype phase is nearly over. Balogun has come this far, choosing to commit to the USMNT for the rest of his career. It'll take time for that partnership to truly blossom.

    Will it all have been worth it? The excitement, the emojis, the internet sleuthing, the projecting, the expectations? Check back in a few years. By then, Balogun may just be the guy everyone with the USMNT is hoping he could be.