Gooners have been understandably excited about Folarin Balogun even before this little breakout year he’s had on loan for Reims, bagging 20 goals, almost half the mid-table side’s 44. Calls for him to return to Arsenal surged when Jesus went down on the belief that he’d simply replicate his form in the Prem. His decision to represent the US men’s national team suggest that his best days lay away from London.
Should we worry? This move almost automatically makes him a starter at the international level, and with the US currently ranked #13 in the world, it’s not as if he’s gone off to play for one of the minnows of the world. This has to be a more-attractive prospect than trying to fight against Callum Wilson, Ollie Watkins, and Ivan Toney for mop-up minutes that Kane leaves behind. He has to believe if not know that representing England would mean a lot of time watching, not playing.
However, similar to playing for Reims, there’s a hint of something lacking, a hunger or desire to mix it up with the big boys. Five of his 20 goals came against Ligue One’s top six sides, a decent return considering that, by definition, they’re the league’s best clubs and are, for the most part, its stingiest defenses. Of those 20 goals, though, only four or five required anything more than a poacher’s one touch against lax defending. If we’re after a striker who’s lit up Ligue One, we might as well look at Lacazette, scorer of 26 goals.
I’m not calling Balogun a flat-track bully (although it does sound like I’m doing exactly that). I’m just asking questions. Ahem. Anyway, before we get too excited about Balogun, we have to remind ourselves of the levels against which he’s competed. He’s had those ten matches against Ligue One’s best, and even if his move to represent the US gives him more caps, battering Belize or the Bahamas isn’t going to sharpen his skills—well, maybe a bit more than coming on late against Liechtenstein would.
Perhaps Balogun saw the racism directed at players like Rashford, Sancho, and Saka suffered after missing their pens at the Euro 2020 defeat. Maybe he’s seen how stifling the pressure on the Three Lions can get to bring the World Cup home. Maybe he didn’t want to spend the next four years carrying water for Harry Kane (who, given how old he’ll be for the 2026 World Cup, probably should accept a reduced role to let his understudies grown into the role).
It’s hard to predict what Balogun’s decision will mean. The increased playing time, even against inferior competition, could accelerate his development. How would that compare to the insights and experience he’d get from training with and practicing with (and occasionally playing alongside) England’s best? While Americans are carving out a larger role in European soccer, the lion’s share of them still play in the MLS.
In the end, let’s hope that Balogun’s decision reflects exactly that hunger and desire I mentioned earlier. If he can elevate the USMNT to the next level in its development, so much the better for him, them, and the Arsenal. Is he the next Jozy Altidore, or is he the next Clint Dempsey?