The offer came with no strings attached, Folarin Balogun said. With the U.S. national team training in Orlando and Balogun’s French club idled by an international break, American coach Anthony Hudson reached out with a quiet invitation for Balogun to come over for dinner.
The visit didn’t stay quiet for long. When Balogun took to Instagram to post what he thought were generic photos of him posed inside a car and sitting on the grass, toweling off after a workout, U.S. Soccer fans went to work. A partially obscured wall behind the car was quickly linked to an Orlando pub. Another person studied the grass Balogun was sitting on and found it to be the same type the U.S. team was training on.
Balogun was in Florida.
“Trust me bro,” the amateur sleuth wrote on social media. “I know grass.”
That may prove to be the most consequential piece of internet botany in U.S. Soccer history because a few weeks after Balogun had his cover blown, he asked FIFA for a one-time change of affiliation to play for the U.S., not England. He could make his debut Thursday against Mexico in a Nations League semifinal at Allegiant Stadium.
“It was a long process, to be honest,” said Balogun, a tri-national who was born to Nigerian parents in Brooklyn but grew up in England, where he played for four youth national teams. “The manager reached out to me. We spoke about a lot of things, and he just explained the vision for U.S. Soccer.
“In the end, we had a discussion, I went back home. And then I came to my conclusion.”
Balogun, who answers to Flo, is the 35th multi-national player who has chosen the U.S. over other suitors since 2019, a list that includes World Cup players Yunus Musah, Sergiño Dest, Gio Reyna and Jesús Ferreira. And he may be the most important because after finding the back of the net 21 times this season for Reims in France’s Ligue 1, he gives the U.S. the proven goal scorer it lacked.
“Obviously he’s a player profile we don’t have in that position. If you score 20-plus goals in a top European league, you’re bringing something different to the group,” said Charlie Davies, a former national team forward and part of the CBS Sports broadcast team for the Nations League matches. “This could be a massive game changer because of his runs, his ability, his tactical knowledge to open up space. But it’s all potential. You’ve got to bring it to the pitch.”
Musah, who grew up with Balogun in Arsenal’s academy system, agrees.
“I feel like Flo, it’s kind of self-explanatory,” he said. “Everyone’s seen what he’s done this season, so you have to feed him the ball, and he’s going to put it in the goal, you know? That’s pretty much it.”
But he’s joining a team that’s unsettled. Hudson, whose dinner conversation convinced Balogun to play for the U.S., has left for a club coaching job in Qatar, so it was his replacement, B.J. Callaghan, who offered Balogun his first national team call-up. Yet Callaghan, too, is simply keeping the seat warm as U.S. Soccer decides on a permanent manager, leaving the U.S. to play both the Nations League final four and the CONCACAF Gold Cup under an interim coach.
“We’re not completely changing everything about what we’re doing,” captain Christian Pulisic said of playing under Hudson and Callaghan, who were assistants on Gregg Berhalter’s World Cup staff last fall. “There’s definitely continuity.”
One thing the U.S. would like to continue is its success against Mexico, which hasn’t beaten the Americans in five games over nearly four years. Another win Thursday would send the U.S., the defending Nations League champion, on to Sunday’s final against the winner of the other semifinal between Panama and Canada.
For Balogun, who turns 22 next month, getting his first national team cap against the country’s chief rival in a meaningful game seems like a good way to start.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity, not just for me, but for the team. And I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “There’s no better way to introduce myself than playing against big opposition when it matters.”
Yet there’s no certainty he’ll start — or even play. Although Balogun is the only U.S. international to score more than 20 goals in a season in a top European league, he’s coming off an exhausting club season and has spent just a week around his new team.
“It’s still very early,” he said. “I’m still getting to know when my teammates on the pitch and off the pitch. This is not something that’ll come overnight. In terms of my expectations, I’m coming in with a mindset that I need to earn my place. I’m not assuming I’m going to come in and start. That’s not really the mentality I have in life.
“So I’m looking to just impress the manager. And if he feels that’s right for me to play, that’s great.”
But he’s already aware of the great expectations others have placed on his shoulders.
“There’s been a lot of noise surrounding me coming but I feel like this is just the nature of the sport,” he said. “I’m obviously used to competing. The pressure I have for myself is internal, so what I hear on the outside is never going to be more than what I expect for myself.”
U.S. Soccer’s fans have already served notice that whatever Balogun does, it won’t go unnoticed.