Arsenal striker Folarin Balogun is set to make his much-anticipated debut for the United States in Thursday’s CONCACAF Nations League semi-final against regional rivals Mexico.
The Final Four tournament in Las Vegas marks the start of the road to the 2026 World Cup which will be co-hosted by the US, Mexico and Canada.
Canada play Panama in Thursday’s other semi-final with the final and third-place games also at the Allegiant Stadium on Sunday.
With no qualification process for the three World Cup co-hosts, it is going to be the CONCACAF tournaments, including this month’s Gold Cup, where the teams will seek to build towards the big one.
American fans have high hopes for Balogun, who scored 21 goals in France’s Ligue 1 this season where he was on loan to Reims.
The New York-born forward, who moved to England as a two-year-old, recently switched his national allegiance to the US from England, where he had played for the Under-21 team.
The US have lacked a consistent goalscoring centre-forward, capable of making the most of the opportunities created by the likes of Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah and Gio Reyna.
“I’m just settling in, getting to know everyone. There’s been a lot of noise surrounding me coming but I feel like this is just the nature of the sport,” Balogun said after teaming up with the squad.
“I’m obviously used to competing and I’m used to the pressure of playing at Arsenal and having that expectation of yourself.
Interim US head coach BJ Callaghan will have to decide whether to hand Balogun his debut from the outset against El Tri or to keep faith with Ricardo Pepi and use his new weapon from the bench.
“I’m coming in with a mindset that I need to earn my place. I’m not assuming I’m going to come in and start. That’s not really the mentality I have in life,” said Balogun.
Callaghan is taking charge of the US team for the first time since he was appointed to guide the team until a new permanent coach has been selected.
Gregg Berhalter, who led the US into the round-of-16 at the World Cup last year, did not have his contract renewed and his temporary replacement, Anthony Hudson, left to join Qatari club Al-Markhiya.
The US are clearly targeting the Nations League, having named a largely domestic-based squad, without most of their Europe-based stars, for the Gold Cup.
– Intense Pressure –
Mexico have also changed coaches after their disappointing World Cup where they failed to progress from the group stage for the first time in 32 years.
Argentine Diego Cocca took over in February and is under intense pressure to deliver on the undoubted potential he has inherited.
Mexico are without injured Napoli winger Hirving Lozano and wide-man Jesus Corona of Seville but are hoping that Feyenoord’s 22-year-old striker Santiago Gimenez will make an impact.
Canada are looking to build upon their first World Cup appearance in 36 years with coach John Herdman sticking with the bulk of the squad that featured in Qatar.
The Canadians have yet to win a title in CONCACAF and that is something Herdman is hoping his players can change.
“This is an experienced group of players with a hunger to win silverware for Canada,” said Herdman.
“We know we have a big opportunity in front of us to lift a trophy, but we also know it’s going to be difficult and we are relishing that challenge,” he said.
Canada starts as favourites against Panama, coached by Danish-born former Spain international Thomas Christiansen, who will be without two regulars in Alberto Quintero and Jose Fajardo, who are suspended for the semi-final.
But midfielder Adalberto Carrasquilla, who plays in Major League Soccer for Houston Dynamo, says ‘Los Canaleros’ are comfortable being underdogs.
“For us, it is nothing out of this world, Panama has never been a favourite, so we are used to that. I have full confidence, together with the group, that we can win this game,” he said.