Inside Folarin Balogun’s USMNT reveal: Years of discussions and a late push from England

The purpose of the Zoom call on May 4 was a mundane one — to go over the U.S. men’s national team’s timeline for the upcoming summer — but it carried significant implications for a years-long chase. 

On one end of the call was Tom King, U.S. Soccer’s managing director of administration, and Michael Kammarman, the U.S. men’s national team press officer. On the other was Folarin Balogun’s agent, Eddie Bonsu.

The 21-year-old Arsenal striker is in the midst of a breakout season on loan with Reims in Ligue 1. His 19 goals are tied for fifth-best in the French top division. Going into this discussion, Balogun was eligible to play for three different national teams: the U.S., where he was born; England, where he was raised; and Nigeria, the country where his parents were born. The U.S. saw Balogun as a potential game-changer at a No. 9 position that was a problem spot in the last World Cup cycle.

Balogun’s representatives had made clear they wanted any decision they made on his international future to stay quiet until June 3, when the forward’s club season in France was over. King and Kammarman wanted to make sure Balogun was aware of the roster deadlines for the summer tournaments, most specifically a May 15 deadline for CONCACAF Nations League provisional rosters. CONCACAF intended for those squads to be made public on May 19. Balogun would be on the U.S.’s list, even if he had not yet made a decision.

When the call started at 11:30 a.m. Central Time, Bonsu opened with a surprise: a decision had been made. King and Kammarman feared it would be a short call. They hadn’t been expecting any news at this stage.

“Unfortunately,” Bonsu started, letting the word hang in the air. 

Kammarman and King’s shoulders sagged. Bonsu joked later he had never seen two people go so pale. Then he dropped the news. 

“You’re stuck with us.”

Kammarman and King jumped up from their seats. A courtship that began more than two years ago, morphed into a “Where’s Waldo?” social media flurry during a U.S. camp in Orlando in March, and eventually led to hundreds of American-flag Instagram comments was officially over. On a separate call a few minutes later, Balogun let USMNT interim manager Anthony Hudson know: He was choosing to play for the U.S. 

“A lot of work by a lot of people had gone into getting to that point,” Kammarman said. “We were obviously elated.”

The calls set off a flurry of activity over the following two weeks, including rescheduled itineraries for transatlantic flights, a Slack channel called “Mr. X’s Decision” and, eventually, a leak to the press that turned the timing for the planned announcement on its head. 

In the end, all that mattered was that the USMNT may have found a No. 9 to help solve some of its goal-scoring woes.

This is the behind the scenes story of how Balogun chose the USMNT.

The internet sleuthing that pinned Balogun as being in Orlando in March set off a firestorm on USMNT Twitter, but it only made public a recruitment process that dated back much further.

As Balogun was working on a new deal with Arsenal in 2021, then-USMNT general manager Brian McBride made contact to gauge his interest in playing for the U.S. Balogun had previously played for the U.S. Under-18 team in 2018, and youth national team coaches had remained in touch, but the player had also featured for England youth sides. When McBride reached out to Bonsu, Balogun said he wanted to focus on his contract talks and make a claim to a role at Arsenal.

McBride stayed in touch, and he reached out again last year before the World Cup to continue the dialogue. Balogun was again focused on his club career, but with the U.S. making its interest known, he started to explore the possibility. He took a trip to New York to get a feel for the country where he was born and came back feeling a real connection. 

When Hudson reached out in recent months, Balogun was open to talking more. And when a window opened up for him to go to Florida that lined up with a U.S. camp in the Orlando area, Balogun and his team hopped on a flight.

U.S. Soccer tried its best to keep Balogun’s presence quiet — notably, he had pulled out of an England Under-21 team camp as they were preparing for this summer’s UEFA Under-21 Championship — but he posted a photo to Instagram that included the partially-obscured name of a bar on the building behind him. The set off the U.S. fandom’s amateur investigation team. 

U.S. Soccer set up a meeting between Hudson and Balogun, and the Greater Orlando Sports Commission and New York Yankees chipped in by setting Balogun and his associates up with tickets to see the Orlando Magic and a Yankees spring training game. He also went to dinner with several U.S. players, including Arsenal teammate Matt Turner and former Arsenal youth teammate Yunus Musah. 

On Twitter and Instagram, every Balogun post was met with dozens of American flag emojis. At his hotel a few miles from where the U.S. was staying, people recognized Balogun and asked him to choose the U.S. It all made a big impact on the 21-year-old.

I think that’s when I really saw the full force of the U.S. fans,” Balogun would say later. “I was there and I just posted a photo with my friends thinking that it was just a holiday picture. Before I knew it, I just saw loads of comments and people knew I was in America, and I just really felt the love from there.”

When he left the U.S. and got back to France, Balogun took a month to think things over. The FA remained in touch and presented a plan for Balogun to play for the Under-21s this summer, and then potentially integrate in with the first team after that, where there would be considerable competition at his position. The U.S. was clear that they believed he would add immediate value to their senior men’s team. Balogun weighed it all up and spoke to family.

“His parents had been pushing the U.S. narrative for years,” Bonsu said in a phone call this week. “They always wanted him to play for the U.S., For them, you’re American, you were born there. This is where you should be. … He came back to me and said, ‘Ed, I know what I want to do. I’m going to go play for my country of birth. I feel it more than anything else. This is what I want to do.’” 

Soon after that, Balogun and Bonsu made calls to the FA to let them know the decision. They tried to change his mind and sell him on their plan for him this summer, with a chance to integrate into the senior team over time if he continued on his current trajectory.

“He told them he feels like his heart is set on playing for the U.S.,” Bonsu said. “He’s very much about that feeling. He said, ‘I feel it. This is where I feel like I need to be.’”  

Then, on May 4, Bonsu signed on to the video call to deliver the news to King and Kammarman.

Two and a half hours after ending that Zoom, at precisely 1:57 p.m., King submitted to FIFA the bulk of the paperwork needed for a one-time switch. 

The package he sent was missing just one document, but King knew the earlier he started the process the better chance U.S. Soccer had to finalize the switch before rosters were due for the Nations League finals, which begin on June 15 when the U.S. faces Mexico in their side of the semifinals.

Conversations with Balogun’s team to plan out the announcement also started immediately. Balogun wanted certain themes to be prominent: the idea of coming home, and elements of New York and Brooklyn. They needed to schedule a photoshoot and went to work planning content for social media. U.S. Soccer director of content Jeff Crandall reached out to an artist, Robert Generette III, who goes by the name Robzilla on social media. Generette had previously done a comic-like illustration of Yunus Musah for U.S. Soccer. They asked him to get to work on another piece, but they couldn’t name the player. He mocked up a newspaper front with a U.S. player, art that would eventually publish on the announcement day. 

Internally at U.S. Soccer, a group of 10 employees started the behind-the-scenes work on a Balogun announcement. Crandall started a Slack channel called “Mr. X’s Decision” to coordinate the announcement, while also trying to keep the circle of those in-the-know small. The hope was that Balogun would be able to break the news himself at the right time. 

Those in the loop included Mike Gressle, U.S. Soccer’s director of retail development, who was alerted to be ready for jersey orders (no more homemade Balogun U.S. jerseys would be needed). Head equipment manager Kyle Robertson overnighted U.S. jerseys from Los Angeles for Balogun’s photo shoot, as well as for his family members, and an American flag and U.S. crested ball.

Kammarman, video manager Nick Burton and team videographer Kevin Zemansky prepared to fly to France to meet with Balogun for photo, video and audio content. A day before they were set to fly, however, the location was changed to London. Balogun was scheduled to play Friday, May 12, and had a few days off. He was going home to see family. U.S. Soccer changed their flight. Balogun’s team booked a photo studio in Kentish Town, an area of Northwest London, with a photographer who had worked with Balogun before.

On Friday morning, King submitted the final papers to FIFA. The trio of U.S. Soccer employees got on their flights to London, and on Saturday evening at 5 p.m. they met Balogun at the studio. Balogun arrived and introduced himself to everyone in the room. He joked about his mom asking why it took so long to choose the U.S. The shoot lasted about an hour and a half.

Balogun in a U.S. shirt and draped in an American flag during his photo session in London. (Photo: Matt Gordon/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

By Sunday morning at 8 a.m. Kammarman, Burton and Zemansky were on a flight back to Chicago. The plan was for the news to drop on Wednesday, May 17, pending final word from FIFA.

On Tuesday morning at 6:04 a.m., a WhatsApp message from King pinged the group.


Attached was a letter from FIFA. 

“Decision of the Single Judge of the Players’ Status Chamber – Change of Association,” it read. The key news was below. FIFA had approved Balogun’s one-time switch from England to the U.S. national team. 

Exactly 29 minutes later, the news leaked. An English tabloid published a story about the switch. U.S. Soccer and Balogun, who were prepared for a Wednesday announcement, went into scramble mode to go public. The video wasn’t finished yet, nor was the written content. Employees behind the scenes rushed to get things polished. Cody Sharrett, U.S. Soccer’s social media manager who edits and posts all content to social channels, didn’t check Slack until 7:30 a.m., when he was on the El train on his way into the office. A press release had to be finished and a quote from interim manager Anthony Hudson gathered. At 7:41 a.m., Balogun and his team sent a video they had conceived and produced for the announcement. U.S. Soccer shared the art from Robzilla. 

At 9:13 a.m. Central time, Balogun’s post went live. 

“He was buzzing,” Bonsu said. 

Back at U.S. Soccer, Dylan Abeles, the senior coordinator of digital media, loaded things onto the website. At 9:58 a.m., Crandall sent one more Slack message: “Let this stuff fly.”

The first U.S. Soccer social media posts went public. Two and half years of recruitment, two weeks of preparation and two and a half hours of scrambling were done. Balogun to the USMNT was officially official. All the focus now turned to the Nations League in June, and an official debut.

“One thing Flo knows: he’s not walking into the team as ‘I’m the man,’” Bonsu said. “He knows he’s got to fight and prove himself.” 

With the intrigue now over, it’s time to prove it was all worth it.

(Top photo: Matt Gordon/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

2023-05-19 11:01:21