12 Oct How a twist of fate, family advice helped Balogun become the USMNT’s next big thing
LA TURBIE, France — Florence Balogun had been telling her son Folarin to choose the United States for years.
England, where he grew up, had called to ask whether he would play for its squad. Nigeria, where his parents were born, was interested, too, but the opportunity to play for the country of Folarin Balogun‘s birth — he was born in Brooklyn — had always seemed to be a little more than circumstance.
To Florence, it had been fate.
She would, however, like to correct the record. “Where the story came from that he was in America until he was 2, I’ll never know,” she said, laughing. “I had him in July and by the end of August we were back in London.”
The actual time frame was closer to two months.
However, Balogun’s progress in the years since he went to London as a child could change the course of the U.S. men’s national team as it prepares to host the next World Cup in 2026.
Since the era of Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, the U.S. has been looking for its next goal scorer. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Balogun appeared, making headlines last season as one of Europe’s most prolific young strikers. A breakout year on loan from Arsenal at Ligue 1‘s Reims last season (21 goals in all competitions) was followed by a permanent move to AS Monaco this summer, and after making his U.S. debut in June, two goals in four appearances is just a sample of what he can do.
His mother’s vacation to New York when seven months pregnant in 2001, and the lasting feeling it left her with, may have made the difference when it came to U.S. Soccer’s search. It all happened because the airline refused her travel home to London.
“My belly was so massive,” she said. Without a letter from her doctor in London, the family resigned to having Folarin born in Brooklyn, and Florence stayed at her sister-in-law’s two-bedroom apartment there until she and the baby were well enough to fly back. With Florence in particular, it struck a lasting chord.
“I don’t believe things happened by luck,” she said. “I think for me to have gone to America and for me to have had him there, it is just something that has really stuck with me. Even when he wasn’t even thinking of making an international decision, I’d already made up my mind that he is going to play for America.”
The decision, in the end, though, was Balogun’s.
“She’s a big believer that you should go to where your heart is desired,” Balogun said. “For her, it was really heartwarming just how much [the American fans] wanted to support me, and how much they wanted me to be a part of it. That almost came onto me as well.
“But in the end, it wasn’t about that. It was about me naturally just feeling that this is the best thing, and that this is what I wanted to do.”
It was a warm day in early October when we meet Balogun on the roof terrace of AS Monaco’s training base in a neighbourhood in the hills behind Monaco, looking out onto the deep blue of the Mediterranean Sea. He was sitting down with ESPN for the first time to talk through the remarkable changes in his life over the past 12 months. Thankfully, he wasn’t in a rush. There was a lot he wanted to discuss.
His move to Monaco came after a year at Reims. While it’s considered a modest, midtable Ligue 1 club that was perhaps a surprising choice for the Arsenal academy graduate, it was also a club that trusted him and provided a platform to showcase his immense talent. The steep, dizzying rise he enjoyed surprised even Balogun.
At the start of the 2022-23 season, he had a one-on-one chat with then-assistant coach Will Still, who asked him what he wanted out of his year at the club. “Ten goals,” Balogun replied. By his own measure, he had greatly underestimated what he was capable of. Even amid the team’s poor form, he scored in five of his first six games. Still was given the manager’s job in November, and by the end of the season, Balogun had scored 21 league goals — good enough for fourth in Ligue 1. It was the best year of his career.
Reims treasured the attributes Balogun honed there: His striker’s instinct for chances, a clinical finish, his level head and his calm mentality. However, the skill he developed most in his year abroad had been adaptability.
“I took that risk, I sat down with my agent and my family [before the move] and I thought to myself, I know I have the ability to do it and I’ll just do it and almost prove you guys wrong,” Balogun said. “In the end, I was able to do that.
“It’s a lot more difficult than I might be making out. There were a lot of challenges, especially off the pitch; that helped me to develop as a man.”
Balogun has a watch riding on a bet with Saka
Folarin Balogun reveals the bet he’s made with his former Arsenal teammate Bukayo Saka for this season.
The first few months in the Reims locker room were difficult. He had never played abroad before and quickly felt isolated, unable to speak the same language as his teammates. Reims is a picturesque city in the heart of France‘s northeastern wine region, famous for its champagne houses, yet it’s not a tourist hotspot like other major French cities. Not many people speak English.
“It almost made me more introverted because you spend a year abroad, you’re not really speaking and you’re more listening,” Balogun said. “You might have somebody translating something and you’re not going to get the same detail — you’re not talking the same language. So it really made me listen a lot more. I think that’s stuck with me.
“Even now, moving here to Monaco, I just listen more and try to absorb what’s being said.”
Those hardships are where his family comes in. Florence, his father, Ben, and his brother and sister made the trip from London to Reims for almost every home game; it wasn’t always easy for Florence given her full-time job as an accountant, but she always got by. They supported him at away games, too, and other family members in France would be there in person to provide support when they could not.
“I definitely needed them in the beginning to just encourage me and motivate me to keep going,” Balogun said. Sometimes they’d make surprise visits, texting him in a way that made him think they would miss the game, only to show up when he least expected it. “He’ll be like, ‘Oh my, what are you guys doing here?'” Florence said with a laugh.
By midseason, he’d gotten better at using his hands to communicate and had started to learn colloquial French.
“Maybe I couldn’t reply, but at least I could understand or laugh at their jokes in the changing rooms. It was a process,” Balogun said.
During a team dinner at the end of the season, Balogun rose from his place at the table and produced a prepared letter. He stood in front of the team and his manager, Still, and read his message aloud. It was a message of thanks for everything they had done for him. Still replied by thanking Balogun for “being so down to earth.”
“I’m sure in the end it was like a mutual respect sort of thing,” Balogun said. “I still have a lot of respect for him.”
In March, what his mother believed was fate had become a reality. Balogun committed to the U.S. men’s national team and at the photoshoot for the press release, she laughed about why it took him so long to decide.
In June, he made his debut in the CONCACAF Nations League semifinal against Mexico, giving American fans their first look at the new No. 9, a leading goal scorer in Europe, now leading the USMNT’s front line. Most of the conversations he had with his new teammates before that were focused on what he was about to experience.
“They said it’ll be an aggressive game, that the Mexicans and their fans will be really up for it, trying to make it hostile,” Balogun said, “and then to be fair, I just kind of nodded it off and said: ‘Yeah, I agree. I understand what you’re saying. I’ve played in rivalries before, so I kind of know what to expect.’ But then when I got out there and I was in the game, I realised that they weren’t joking.”
The game went as well as could be expected, with the U.S. winning 3-0 and Balogun fitting into the new-look attack. Days later, the Americans played in the final against Canada, where Balogun got his first goal, and his first international trophy, in a 2-0 win.
The key storyline around the U.S. team for the next three years will inevitably be the 2026 World Cup. As one of the three host nations, the Americans are granted automatic qualification. Balogun, they hope, will provide the kind of threat they have long lacked, and the goals that could take them far into the tournament.
Does Balogun ever think about it?
“It has crossed my mind,” he said. “I think it’s just more of a feeling of making sure I’m in the best possible shape and I’m ready. By 2026 there are things I would’ve hoped to achieve in my career, and I feel like if I can tick off my own checklist before then, I’ll be in a top position going into that World Cup.”
Balogun returned to Arsenal this summer with a clear goal: continue playing first-team football. His goals for Reims, the tally of which had outpaced even the great Kylian Mbappé for much of the season, had made him one of Europe’s most promising young strikers. Yet it had the opposite effect when the transfer window opened, as his 2022-23 performances seemed to actually reduce his options.
ESPN reported that Arsenal were commanding a sizable fee for Balogun, owing to his age and his talent. An early suitor was Monaco. It became clear Balogun was not against staying at Arsenal, the club he joined in 2008 at 8 years old and where he’d grown up alongside stars like Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe. When he returned to London, he spoke to manager Mikel Arteta, who congratulated him on a great season and encouraged him to keep it up, though he left the decision on his future to the club’s executives.
“The conversations between me and him were good, but it was more about the club, what they wanted to do,” Balogun said. “It was out of my hands.
“That’s how I felt. It wasn’t something I could control. The only thing I could do was just turn up to train and work hard. So I did that. And then after training, I enjoyed being back in London. I saw my friends, caught up with my family, and yeah, I wasn’t really too bothered about it.”
Last season, he spoke with Arsenal legend Thierry Henry, who told him about his own spell in Monaco (1994-1999) and what life in the city was like. When a deal was finally agreed on, Balogun seized the opportunity with both hands.
“I knew it was a team that if I came to Monaco and if I was able to improve on my season last year, I felt like it would be a really good addition for me and we would be able to achieve good things,” he said.
Arriving in August, the move came with early success. Monaco is at the top of Ligue 1 after eight games, two points ahead of league giant PSG, and Balogun scored three goals (plus one assist) in his first five appearances. (There was one early hiccup, when he missed two penalties in a 1-0 defeat against Nice.) Balogun has still been counting on Henry’s advice even after making the move, receiving a message saying “well done” if he scores, or even a laugh when he copied Henry’s infamous celebration from his time in Monaco, standing upright next to the corner flag.
“It’s nice to know that I have somebody like that. If I was unsure about something, I could ask him,” Balogun said.
Last weekend, the Balogun family arrived in Reims for the first time since their son left the club. The city has come to mean something quite special to them, and that sentiment rings true for the club staff, too. Florence personally thanked Still at the end of last season for showing faith in her son, even toward the end of the campaign, when it became clear he was unlikely to rejoin the following season.
This time, the family had returned to watch Balogun play for Monaco against his former side on Saturday. Florence said that despite the fact that their son was on the opposing team, Reims still showed the same love and respect for her family, and the same player care officer at Reims helped Balogun’s family book a car and hotel.
“Funnily enough, when we went this weekend, they still looked after us,” she said.
“I told him not to celebrate if he scored.”
In the 46th minute of Saturday’s match, with Monaco already up 1-0, Balogun found space on the right side of the box, received the ball and rifled a shot down the goalkeeper’s throat. As the ball hit the back of the net, Balogun immediately turned and raised his hands — a gesture of non-celebration.
Florence and the rest of his family were watching from the stands. Just as he did regarding his international future, Balogun had taken her advice.