During the summer of 2019, a 16-year-old Arsenal academy player named Yunus Musah left London and signed with Valencia. Industry insiders and devoted fans of the two clubs would have taken notice, but otherwise it wasn’t exactly the kind of transfer that makes headlines or got too many people talking outside those particular English and Spanish cities.
Except in Chicago, of all places, where U.S. national team coach Gregg Berhalter, general manager Brian McBride and their colleagues were following Musah closely. And the transfer was good news. It turned out that assistant coach Nico Estevez had an in at Valencia. He’d spent eight years at the club coaching its youth and reserve teams before moving to Columbus to join Berhalter at the Crew. So Estevez reached out and made contact with Musah, who was an England youth international at the time. A potential switch that would be more than a year in the making was underway.
“It’s an obligation as a federation to know these players, to know what they’re doing, what level they’re performing at, if they can help the program, and it’s also our obligation to be actively engaged with these players,” Berhalter said Tuesday. So that's something where we do divide our work. It’s not only myself and Brian. It could be [USSF sporting director] Earnie [Stewart] at times. It could be our coaching staff at times. Nico Estevez, who worked at Valencia, has very good contact with them and was instrumental in speaking to the club and then to Yunus and his family at first, before I did.
“So we divide and conquer.”
Musah had no tangible connection to American soccer. But he had one to this country. He was born in New York City in November 2002 while his Ghanaian mother was on vacation, he has said. Shortly thereafter the family moved to northeast Italy, where Musah began to play soccer. Then it was off to London in 2012, where Musah joined Arsenal and became part of the England youth setup. He’s already played up with England’s U-18s and served as captain.
The young midfielder is a tantalizing prospect, but he doesn’t appear to be interested in waiting to realize his potential. His interest in proactively bettering his situation led him to Valencia, where he’d crack the first team faster. And last weekend, he became Valencia’s youngest foreign goal scorer and La Liga’s youngest English goal scorer when he found the net in a 2-2 draw with Getafe.
If Musah was willing to move once, maybe he’d be willing to move again. It’s those possibilities, no matter how scant, that set Berhalter and his staff to work. In addition to monitoring committed U.S. internationals who are already part of the pool and his plans, the federation pays close attention to any potential recruits as a matter of policy. In addition, it has to be aware of other countries going after its uncapped dual internationals (Giovanni Reyna, for example, is eligible to play for four countries).
It’s sports, so you win some and you lose some. And the USA has lost some. There was intense criticism when California native Jonathan Gonzalez, a midfielder at Monterrey, made a binding, one-time switch to Mexico in January 2018. At that time, the federation was reeling following the USMNT's failure to qualify for the World Cup. But overall, the record is trending positively.
Barcelona defender Sergiño Dest committed to the USA over his native Netherlands. Striker Sebastian Soto, who’s scored five goals in six games for Dutch second-tier side Telstar, was wooed by Chile this fall but also accepted Berhalter’s invitation to this month’s camp in Wales and Austria. And now Musah has agreed to a call-up despite his ties to England. Berhalter and McBride have a structure—the addition of the GM role itself is a massive change—a strategy and a recruiting pitch that have paid off.
An appearance against Wales on Nov. 12 or Panama on Nov. 16 won’t cap-tie Musah or Soto. But their presence is a good sign. Berhalter will have laid out his intentions and plans, and they’ll each get to spend time with a young team with considerable promise.
“It comes down to the environment we want to create. I think that will kind of sell itself. And the other thing is the players that we have are attracting a lot of attention worldwide, so when you speak to Yunus or Sebastian Soto or other players, these guys that are doing these things across the world in soccer are known, and they’re very familiar with these guys,” Berhalter said of why his program is appealing to players like Musah.
“Everyone can see what Christian [Pulisic] is doing on the field, and everyone can see why this guy is a star on the world stage. ‘I can use that platform—the platform of the United States national team, to also be a star.’ … These players are all aware of what’s happening with our player pool.”
That pool of young talent appears larger than it’s ever been, and while Berhalter starts trying to mold Musah, Soto and the rest into a cohesive team, the work monitoring other potential commits continues. One may have been lost on Wednesday—midfielder Jens Cajuste, who’s playing in the UEFA Champions League with Denmark’s Midtjylland, was included on Sweden’s Nations League roster. Cajuste has an American father. Others technically remain in play, however. For example, there’s forward Folarin Balogun, 19, who like Musah is an Arsenal product born in New York City. He’s represented England at the youth level and his parents are Nigerian. Netherlands youth national team defender Kik Pierie, who’s on Ajax’s books, was born in Boston. And then there’s the numerous Mexican-Americans, like the LA Galaxy’s Efrain Alvarez, who’s played for the USA U-15s and Mexico’s U-17s.
“Mexico is doing is the exact same thing. They’re actively recruiting every single one of our players,” Berhalter said Tuesday. “So when you hear about conversations when we talk to our guys, Mexico’s spoken to all those guys and they’re actively recruiting them. I think it’s part of international soccer.
“One thing I’m always careful about is, I want to know the player’s connection to the United States,” Berhalter continued. “In terms of do they feel it in their heart? Do they feel like they want to be part of this team? Do they feel a connection to the United States? Because that’s really important. We also want to create a team that has a deep passion for representing our country, and it ebbs into what we’re doing as a team.”
In a 2018 interview with England’s JD Football, Musah was asked whether he’s American, Italian or English. The teenager responded, “I’m Ghanaian.” He can be all of them, of course. But something must have emerged during Berhalter’s conversations with Musah and his family (he said they all spoke “at length”) that convinced him Musah will embrace playing for the USA—at least for the time being.
“What we see from him is a player that’s hungry. He’s hungry to make his impact,” Berhalter said. “He has a connection with the United States. He loves the direction the team is going in. He loves the young talent that he can be alongside, and we see him as having a ton of potential and for us. It’s about getting him on the field with us, letting him experience how we work as a group, how we work as a staff, letting him experience the teammates and the team environment that we’re able to create, and then all we can do is hope that in the end he chooses us for the long term. He’s obviously chosen us now, but there’s still a long-term implication that’s left to be decided.”
Musah is eligible to play this month because he hasn’t represented England in official youth competition. Otherwise, he’d have to file for a permanent switch. Playing for Berhalter next year in Concacaf Nations League, Gold Cup or World Cup qualifying matches would bind him to the USA.
Regarding Soto, Berhalter said, “He’s a guy that’s been in our program, has played at the U-20 World Cup for us, has been a youth international. Now he has an opportunity to get his first international cap with us. So my expectation is that he is a guy that’s committed and is in it for the long haul.”
But the recruitment doesn’t stop, even once the roster is named. Creating a plan and an environment that appeals to the player each and every day is now part and parcel of being a national team coach, because so many young players have options. And having staffers on board like McBride and Estevez who can do some of the scouting and outreach is equally vital. It’s now as much a part of the operation as games and training.
“Every player wants a clear role and clear expectations for their place in the program, and that’s all we laid out to the guys, so when we have these conversations I’m very clear with how I see this player fitting into what we’re doing,” Berhalter explained. “That puts them at ease. I think it gives them a clear understanding of what’s expected from them and how we see them performing, and we try to sell the program. We try to sell the guys and the strength of the squad. We try to sell how we work as a federation. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t work. But sometimes you come out on the right end of it.”
Berhalter said he already has a vision of what how he wants to deploy Musah, and of what he hopes to see in return.
“When you watch his games [at Valencia] he’s playing wide right in a 4-4-2, and he’s taking on the outside back, and he’s running by the outside back and he’s done a good job defensively. But we still see him as a player that can potentially be better centrally—a box-to-box midfielder a little bit in the style of Weston [McKennie] in terms of covering ground.
“What we have to remember, and I think all of us are getting ahead of ourselves just little bit, because he’s 17 years old,” Berhalter continued. “We’re going to bring him into camp and we’re going to play him probably centrally and there’s going to be some growing pains with that, I can tell you right now. But he has so much talent that to me, it’s worth it. It’s worth looking at that. Maybe at Valencia they’re saying, ‘Oh, he’s not ready to play centrally. But we’re ready for it, and we’re excited to see him and the impact he can make.”