Folarin Balogun passes first test as USMNT strive for striker solution at Copa America

Ryan Baldi
Folarin Balogun celebrates Copa America goal
Folarin Balogun celebrates Copa America goal

If there is one player the United States need to perform well at the Copa America over the next few weeks, it’s Folarin Balogun.

And just half a minute into their opening fixture against Bolivia at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, it looked as though the former Arsenal striker’s miserable streak of form was set to continue.

A mishit volley by full-back Joe Scally resulted in the ball finding Balogun wide open 10 yards from goal. But the USMNT forward’s touch was heavy and his rushed shot was smothered by goalkeeper Guillermo Viscarra. For a player without an international goal since October, seeing such a presentable opportunity go begging could have been a confidence killer.

But Balogun continued to move well, hunting for spaces in behind the Bolivia backline and linking with attacking colleagues Tim Weah and Christian Pulisic – whose spectacular third-minute goal got the host nation’s Copa America campaign off to a flying start. And in the final minute before the break, he was rewarded. Played through by Pulisic, Balogun shifted the ball to his left and struck a low shot into the bottom corner. It wasn’t his cleanest strike, but it was enough to deliver the goal he needed; the goal the USMNT needed from him.

The United States Soccer Federation worked hard to woo Balogun into declaring his international allegiance for the country of his birth. Born in Brooklyn, he was raised in England from the age of two and represented the Three Lions at youth level while one of the standout prospects in Arsenal’s academy.

It was last May, after a breakthrough season at club level in which he’d scored 22 goals on loan with French side Reims, that Balogun confirmed his commitment to the United States. The USSF had, rightly, identified a glaring, No.9-shaped hole in the otherwise hyper-talented group of attacking players at manager Gregg Berhalter’s disposal. Balogun fit the bill.

Three goals in his first six caps seemed to justify US soccer’s pursuit of the 22-year-old poacher, too. But just as Balogun struggled to adapt to playing within a ball-dominant club side after a £34 million move to Monaco last summer, he proved ineffective at the point of the USMNT’s forward line, scoreless in his next six outings.

With the pedigree that comes with having scored 20-plus goals in one of Europe’s major leagues and the price tag of his move to Monaco, Balogun is the outstanding option to lead the line for the USMNT not just at the Copa America but also projecting ahead to the 2026 World Cup on home soil. He is not the only option, though. There is also Josh Sargeant, who scored 16 goals in the Championship for Norwich last season, and Ricardo Pepi, who is fresh from helping PSV to an Eredivisie title.

READ: Copa America: 13 host cities ranked on ‘soccer’ interest from indifferent to ignited

Pepi is Balogun’s biggest rival for the role. The 21-year-old came through the academy at FC Dallas before earning a big-money European move as a teenager. The switch to Germany with Augsburg proved too much too soon for the young striker, but he has since rehabilitated his reputation in the Netherlands. He scored 13 goals in 31 games on loan with Groningen in the 2022/23 season, enough to earn an £8.5 million move to PSV last summer.

Both Balogun and Pepi scored seven league goals with their respective new clubs last season. But Pepi plundered his at a much more efficient rate, scoring, on average, every 65.7 minutes. Balogun, by way of contrast, averaged a Ligue 1 goal every 242 minutes.

Pepi’s record at the senior international level is strong, too, with 10 goals from 26 appearances. And in the USMNT’s pre-Copa warm-up friendlies, Berhalter chose to divide playing time between Pepi and Balogun, with the Monaco man starting in the humbling 5-1 defeat to Colombia while the PSV player played in the 1-1 draw with Brazil.

As strong an alternative as Pepi presents, though, he is still not the ideal lead striker candidate for the national team, owing largely to the fact he does not start for his club side – he made just one Eredivisie start last term, with 26 of his 27 outings coming off the bench. He wants to be seen as more than a super-sub, but that is exactly what he is at this stage.

So Balogun got the nod against Bolivia. And beyond his goal, he impressed with his combination play and endeavour. He ought to have notched another goal or two, as well. He broke free into the penalty area early in the second half as Weston McKennie and Weah cleverly worked the ball down the Bolivia right. Balogun fired home from close range, but Weah had strayed offside and the goal was scratched off. Shortly before that effort, Balogun had picked up a similar position in front of goal and would have had a tap-in if not for Weah’s overhit low cross.

A solid afternoon’s work for Balogun was cut short in the 66th minute when, in what felt like a Southgatean pre-planned substitution, Berhalter sent on Pepi in his place. If that switch and the pre-tournament job-share initiative are any indicator, it appears the USMNT coach is trying to solve his side’s need for a centre-forward by instituting a striker-by-committee approach.

Berhalter singled out Pepi for praise post-match, too.

“In that short period of time, to have that many goalscoring opportunities, to be that relentless with his running, with his pressing, with his hold up play, to me, he had an excellent game,” the manager said. “Certainly for him something to build on. I know he was a little bit disappointed after the game but when you get that many chances in that short period of time against an aggressive team, you’re doing something right and we’re confident that the finishing will come.”

The PSV star rattled off six shots at goal in his short time on the pitch, but he lacked the composure Balogun had shown in dispatching his first-half chance and his disallowed strike in the second half.

Next up, it’s Panama in Atlanta on Thursday. Previous experience has taught the States to be wary of the Central American minnows, but a comfortable win is the minimum requirement. Berhalter must resist the temptation to reshuffle his striking options. Stick with Balogun. For the sake of their Copa prospects and their 2026 dreams, the USMNT need him to build from here.