soccer

‘They took one of ours!’ Musah’s USMNT switch is still a source of frustation for England

The midfielder played for the Three Lions at under-age level for years before Gregg Berhalter convinced him to represent the land of his birth.

On Friday night, Yunus Musah will take the field wearing the colors of the US men’s national team.

However, in another reality, Musah, who was raised in England and came up through the Arsenal academy, could easily have ended up with Three Lions on his shirt.

He could have continued playing alongside friends Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka through the ranks all the way up to the senior team, maybe not in this World Cup, but maybe one down the line.

That’s the level of his talent. This wasn’t a player being discarded by a top nation and settling for the US to secure an international future. Musah had his pick of England or US, and, if he wanted, Italy or Ghana.

“I still have a lot of respect for them for everything they’ve done for me,” said Musah, who represented England right up to the U-18 level before shockingly switching to the US in 2021.

“It was very difficult because, as I’ve said, I had such a great time in England. They did a lot for me in that country.

I made the decision because I was born in the US, so that was one of the main things.

And having this opportunity at such a young age was something that I really was gonna take, so that was great: when the manager called me and gave me this opportunity and here we are now.

It was those initial calls from USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter and his staff that convinced Musah to initially try his hand with the USMNT.

He was initially called into the US team in November 2020 for friends against Wales and Panama as part of a European-based squad.

Musah’s connection to the US came through Nico Estevez, an American assistant who had connections at Valencia, where Musah plays his club football.

“He came in smiling ear to ear,” Berhalter recalls of Musah’s first camp two years ago. “He ends people to him very quickly because of his personality. He’s a great guy and we’re proud to see his development.”

Musah added: “I didn’t know what to expect at all, but once I went to that camp, everything was just great. They really welcomed me. Every player, on and off the pitch, we really clicked.

“We had a great style of play and things like that really helps. As soon as you start playing football with each other, you start knowing each other better.”

Those connections, as well as the one between Musah and Estevez, were a key factor in Musah’s decision to commit to the US in March 2021, long before he actually had to decide between one of the other.

On one side, the US was ecstatic. They had secured the future of a true talent, one that should be a centerpiece of the midfield for years to come.

Musah is just 19 with plenty of room to grow but, even now, he’s ready for this sort of showcase, as evidenced by his performance in the World Cup opener against Wales.

But then there’s the other side, the losing side. In the months leading up to the decision, Gareth Southgate Southgate had said he still had plans for Musah in the England setup.

Under-21 manager Aidy Boothroyd had said he hoped to get him in with his squad sooner rather than later. It never happened. They never got their chance.

“With Yunus, it was a strange situation because he was in our U-19s and we actually went into the pandemic, into lockdown, so it wasn’t possible to travel and to see games,” Southgate recalled.

“He was really a player that at that stage, I’d not had a lot of contact with in the junior teams, where one or two of the others I knew a little bit better.

“That decision was made really before I even had the chance to get to know him well.”

To this day, Southgate is still somewhat frustrated by it, going so far as to joke he still holds a grudge towards Gregg Berhalter.

He’s very proactive with recruitment! He took one of ours, which we weren’t very happy about,” Southgate said smiling. “But fair play.”

The two managers, who are close friends, are of course well aware of how these situations work in international soccer.

Battles for dual nationals are the norm, with both sides winning and losing their fair share over the years. Recruiting has been part of the USMNT strategy for years.

One has to only look at the 2014 World Cup roster and names like Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Johns Brooks, Timothy Chandler, Mix Diskerud and, perhaps most notably, Julian Green to see how vital dual nationals have been for the US

The same can be said for England, whose team has a number of players that could have played elsewhere.

Bukayo Saka was eligible for Nigeria, but never showed serious interest in his parent’s home country. Raheem Sterling was born in Jamaica and was, at least at one point, open to playing for the Reggae Boyz before committing to England.

And then there are the cases of Jack Grealish and Declan Riche, both of whom played for the Republic of Ireland (Grealish at under-age level, Riche for the senior side) before opting to switch allegiances.

“We’ve got a few situations like that where the players actually weren’t born in England,” Southgate said.

Obviously [Germany star], Jamal Musiala was another one, but the guys that came the other way were born in England, Grealish and Rice. In the end, you’ve got to go with your heart and where you see yourself.”

The point was echoed by Berhalter, who says that’s usually what he looks like to drive home when it comes to potential recruits, including Musah.

“It was just about building a relationship, letting him see what kind of environment we have with the team and letting him be with the teammates,” Berhalter said. That was the important thing.

“And then it has to be a decision the player has to make with their heart. We got to know him and his family. The most important thing was if he was going to feel comfortable with us and he did.”

Since his decision, Musah has spoken of how he feels it was “destiny” for him to represent the US after being born in New York.

He was born while his Ghanaian mother was stateside on vacation and, in Musah’s eyes, the unusual circumstances of it all were a sign that the US would be his spiritual home.

In recent years, USMNT teammate Tim Weah has taken time to introduce Musah more to that home, namely the Bronx, where he was born.

He’s also found a home in the US midfield alongside Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie. Forming the MMA midfield, the three young stars are all carrying the torch at the top levels of Spain, Italy and England while looking like a trio that could be together for years to come.

But before all that, the US will be focused on Friday night. Musah, in particular, knows the task at hand, having played with and against several of England’s bright young stars.

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“I haven’t spoken to them recently, but we’re expecting big things from both Jude and Bukayo,” he said of his two closest friends in the England squad.

“We were very impressed with them, and they’re going to obviously give their best as usual. They’re very good players.

“You can see how they’re doing at their clubs and they’re producing at the World Cup as well. We’re going to have to be on our game on Friday.”

Southgate, meanwhile, says likewise: that his midfield will need to be well aware of Musah.

“He’s done well in the central areas,” Southgate said. Definitely very good at progressing the ball, driving past people.

“He’s got that ability to go past people which is unusual for a midfield player and, of course, because of the way they like to play without the ball, he’s got the athleticism to cover the pitch as well.

“So, with how he’s playing, we’ve got to respect him within the game.”

It will surely be a surreal one for Musah, even by World Cup standards. At 19 years old, the consequences of his decision will be laid out before him.

On one side, himself, his country of birth and all of the friendships he’s built in recent years. On the other, the country he was raised in, familiar faces, his childhood.

So, when the national anthems play, Musah will surely identify with both due to his connections with both countries. That’s only natural.

But, when the whistle blows, Musa will stand with one side, the one he chose.

“I don’t think I know how I’m going to feel,” said Musah. But it’s a special game, for sure, because I’ve played for both sides.

To be able to be on the pitch with both national teams that I’ve played with is special.

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