While the USA has gone about its work of returning to official competition — it finishes up group play in the Concacaf Nations Cup on Monday against El Salvador in Orlando — speculation about the international future of 21-year-old forward Folarin Balogun
The decision of the Reims star to withdraw from the England U-21 camp and fly to Orlando, where the USA began training last week, has only added to the drama.
The recruitment of dual nationals — players eligible to play for more than one national team either because of family ties, birthplace or residency — has become increasingly common around the world. Half of the 14 players Gregg Berhalter
started at the 2022 World Cup were players who could have played for two or more countries.
In recent years, the USMNT snagged Sergino Dest
(USA over the Netherlands), Yunus Musah
(USA over England, Italy and Ghana), Ricardo Pepi
(USA over Mexico), Malik Tillman
(USA over Germany) and most recently Alex Zendejas
(USA over Mexico). In Friday's 7-1 win at Grenada, Zendejas was one of three players along with Taylor Booth
and Johnny Cardoso
who came off the bench and were officially cap-tied.
Dest, Musah and Zendejas all played for the USMNT in friendlies before committing their international future. Pepi, who played for the USA at the 2019 U-17 World Cup, committed to the USA ahead of the start of World Cup 2022 qualifying, where he was the star in his first two appearances, the USA's first two wins after a pair of ties, with a combined three goals and two assists.
Because Balogun has played for England in UEFA age-group competitions, he can't play for the USMNT without filing a switch of association. He has not trained with the national team at its base camp at the ChampionsGate Sports Complex in Davenport, about 25 miles from Orlando, but he has definitely been out and about, being seen at an Orlando Magic NBA game and a New York Yankees spring training game in Tampa. At both stops, he was given team jerseys with his name on the back.
Such is the media attention to the Balogun recruitment that the process of handling dual nationals was the first question U.S. interim coach Anthony Hudson
was asked about on Sunday ahead of the El Salvador game.
"I think it is a process involving everyone," he said, "starting with the coaching staff, all the way down to our youth national team guys because there's a history behind a lot of these players. Then involving people like [U.S. Soccer managing director of administration] Tom King
making sure that we need to know administratively where we're at. And then from a coaching side, is this someone that can help us? And then it's making contact. And I think with certain players, it's important if we can — not every situation is the same — have someone experience the culture, the team, our players, how we do things, myself share programming, how we see that player fitting into what we're doing. These are all the things that certainly a player wants to see and feel and hear and just know that stuff so he can make an informed decision."
Dest, 22, and Musah, 20, both started for the USA at the 2022 World Cup. Dest committed to the USA in October 2019 and was cap-tied the next month in the Nations League. Musah was still 17 when he attended his first national team camp in November 2020 — he shared a table with World Cup captain Tyler Adams
and Dest in camp at the height of the Covid-19 lockdown — committed to the USA in March 2021 but was not cap-tied until October 2021 when the MMA midfield — Weston McKennie
, Musah and Adams — debuted in World Cup qualifying for home wins over Jamaica and Costa Rica.
"That brings back a lot of memories," Musah said of his decision two years ago to commit to the USA, "and it just makes me smile because I've had a wonderful time with the U.S. so far."
McKennie, Musah and Adams started all four games for the USA at the World Cup, where their play in the group stage drew praise from international experts.
"Being at the World Cup and playing the way I did," Musah said, "it was really, really nice. It was a great achievement for me. We felt like we could have done better than we did, but coming out of that felt really good."
Musah and Balogun share similar paths — Musah born in the Bronx to Ghanaian parents, Balogun born in Brooklyn to Nigerian parents, both raised in Europe, where they played in the Arsenal academy system.
"I haven't spoken to him much about it," Musah said of Balogun, who is older by 17 months. "But I'm sure if he wants any advice, he's gonna pop up to me and ask me how it's like making a decision because it's a tough decision to make to commit forever and everything. I'm sure if he wants any advice, he's gonna come chat to me, for sure."
USA vs. El Salvador
The USA will face El Salvador with a berth in the Concacaf Nations League finals on the line. The USA will head to Las Vegas in June with a win or tie. El Salvador will need to win Group D and reach the final four.
The USA is unbeaten in its last 21 games against El Salvador and has lost just once in 27 meetings — a 2-0 loss in a 1992 friendly -— but it struggled to break down Los Cuscatlecos in their last three meetings — 0-0 tie and 1-0 win in 2022 World Cup qualifying and 1-1 tie in San Salvador last June in the Concacaf Nations League.
The USA dominated El Salvador in the two World Cup qualifiers — finishing with an edge of 1.78 to 0.32 and 2.98 to 0.20 in expected goals — but managed just to score just one goal in the two matches — left back Antonee Robinson's goal in the 52nd minute of the second game in Columbus.
Robinson, who did not play in Friday's 7-1 win at Grenada, is one of what could be at least half a dozen changes in the U.S. lineup on Monday night. A new back four of Sergino Dest, Miles Robinson, Tim Ream and Antonee Robinson is expected to start along with Musah inserted in midfield. Less certain are changes, if any, in the attack.
"There's gonna be a few changes," said Hudson. "I think coming into camp, we had an eye on sort of pre-planned changes. I think one of the the best things, a luxury we have in windows like this is we have a very strong group. We have good depth, which allows us to be able to prepare for two games in a short time frame. And to be able to rotate, not wholesale changes, but to rotate in a way that we can at least get to the second game and have freshness in players and freshness without losing quality."
* * * * *
Concacaf Nations League (League A standings)
Group A. 1. *Mexico 8 points (8-3), 2. Jamaica 6, 3. Suriname 1.
Group B. 1. Panama 7 points (7-0), 2. Costa Rica 6 (4-3), 3. Martinique 1.
• Tuesday: Costa Rica vs. Panama.
Group C. 1. Canada 6 points (7-2), 2. Honduras 6 (4-3), 3. Curacao 3.
• Tuesday: Canada vs. Honduras.
Group D. 1. USA 7 points (13-2), 2. El Salvador 5 (5-4), 3. Grenada 1.
• Monday: USA vs. El Salvador.
*Qualified for Nations League semifinals June 15 in Las Vegas.
Note: The four group winners will advance to the semifinals, where they will be paired based on their performance in group play (1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3).