The battle for national doubles talent is one that all coaches are familiar with, and so is the fourth-place finish. March will be a day to remember for the US national team. It was on this day that manager Gregg Berhalter received a message from Valencia midfielder Yunus Musa with a simple request: Coach, can I talk to you for a second?
Berhalter said yes. At that time, Musa, who could play for Ghana, England or Italy in addition to the United States, announced that he was committing his international future to the Red and White Blue.
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It was a pretty happy conversation, Musa said in an exclusive interview with ESPN. I told [Berhalter] that I appreciate everything and the way he welcomed me to the team, and I just want to go on this journey with everybody else and the United States.
Berhalter was not so calm. If this is the latest recruitment coup for a player with several international options, including Barcelona defender Sergino Desta, Musa is considered another special talent.
I yelled into the phone. I said a resounding yes! Berhalter told ESPN. But it was good. It’s not just about judging him as a player, but as a person. It’s great to have someone like that on your team.
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If one country wins against a player with multiple international options, the others lose. It’s a zero-sum game that, in some cases, leaves players torn. The 18-year-old’s connection to England is particularly strong, as he has not only lived in England since the age of nine. He lived in London from the age of six, but also played for the Three Lions as a youngster, although he never officially played in league. Musa even played twice for England against the United States at U17 level, including in the 2017 Nike friendly, which England won 1-0. In this case, the Valencia midfielder is no stranger to the emotions that accompanied the England cancellation. And there were other Johns.
Julien Lawrence is excited about the future of the USMNT following Yunus Musa’s decision to commit to the United States.
It was a difficult situation because England has done a lot for me, he said. If someone is nice to you, you don’t want to put them on the spot. But ultimately, you have to make the best decision for yourself.
I got so many calls from so many different people, from so many different organizations. And that complicates things a bit, as does the fact that I’ve represented England in the past. So it was a very difficult decision to make.
But he added that it is very exciting. I can’t wait to get started.
That was the end of a 20-month recruiting process in the United States to get Musa, which went perfectly at every step. It all started shortly after Musa signed with Valencia in the summer of 2019, when the Spanish club informed American assistant (and former Valencia coach) Nico Estevez that a player with an American passport was in the squad. Berhalter quickly called to inform Musa of the American team’s interest. That phone call eventually opened the door for a meeting with the player’s family to discuss the American program in more detail.
As with most recruiting battles, relationships played a key role, and the bond between Moussa and Estevez became paramount. Musa says he and Estevez have spoken to each other at least once every two weeks since the United States made contact. Berhalter added that there were times when his assistant and the player spoke as often as every other day.
Estevez’s familiarity with Valencia helped Musa in his first season with the B team, as well as in his first stint with the first team in the 2020-21 season. It also helped him adjust to life in his new country: Estevez spoke to Musa about his games and sent him video clips. Berhalter recalls that the trust between the two was so great that Musa started asking Estevez for advice and videos instead of the American assistant.
Yunus Musa says he felt very welcome at Gregg Berhalter and the USMNT facility. John Dorton/ISI/Getty Images
We just talk like people, really, Musa talked about his relationship with Estevez. He didn’t treat him like a player-coach or anything….. more like friends, you might say. He told me how my week went. He helped me analyze and improve my game. He understands some of the things I’m going through.
When Berhalter invited Musa to the Wales national team’s training camp last November, much of the groundwork had been laid, but the work wasn’t finished. Fortunately for the U.S., a number of talented players have joined in recent years, including Weston McKenney of Juventus, Tyler Adams of RB Leipzig, Gio Reina and Desta of Borussia Dortmund. They made sure Musa was warmly embraced.
The positive paid off, and if there was one sign Musa was leaning towards the United States, it was the team photo before his international debut against Wales last November. These pictures usually show the players in their game, in all their intensity and concentration. In many ways it was, except for Musa, who had the widest smile on his face.
I thought to myself: Enjoy the moment, because it only happens once, he said. And surprisingly the coaches told me the same thing, the players told me the same thing, so I just enjoyed the game. And as you can see from the pictures, I was already enjoying it.
Musa made an impressive debut and helped the US control the game from central midfield, leading to a 0-0 draw. This role has changed from his usual one at Valencia, where he played mainly as a wide midfielder in a 4-4-2. But in midfield, he – and Berhalter – think he’s the best choice. It gives him a chance to showcase his skills: his confidence, his running with the ball, his vision in passing and his energy in defense.
I feel like I can play in a lot of systems, he said. But especially in the U.S., I feel like we want to go out and express ourselves. And when you’re there and you try to express yourself, I think the best version of yourself comes out. And this is very important.
Of course, it wasn’t just about Musa choosing the United States. The player was also expected to impress outside of what was happening on the pitch, but Musa passed those tests with ease.
Everyone likes him, Berhalter said of Moose. He’s such a nice guy to deal with; he has a good attitude, a good disposition. The thing is, when you’re with him, you feel that warmth in him.
Musa also took part in the U.S. team’s anti-racism message before the Wales game, wearing United As One on his warm-up jacket.
A lot of people talk about racism and say they don’t like it, but everyone does nothing about it, he said. And the fact that we decided to do something about it was very important, and I definitely wanted to be there and be a part of it. So I wrote my own post United as one, because no one should have to go through this alone. We’re in this together.
Musa’s Valencia are currently 12th in La Liga. Alex Caparros/Getty Images
The friendlies solidified the bond when the U.S. defeated Panama 6-2 in the second game of the international window. The American staff and players were not late to the recruiting game, as evidenced by the flow of communication between Musah and his American teammates on Twitter and Instagram. But the hard work is done.
I think about the time and effort Gregg and his staff have put into contacting me from time to time since last year and having me come to camp to see how things are going, he said. Everyone was very welcoming. Everyone was great, as if we had seen or met before. And that helps me, because I’m new and they’ve been very good to me. In the end, we played two great games and had fun too.
Berhalter reminds everyone that Moose is 18 years old. There is still a lot of work to be done, but the American manager is also excited about what the future might bring.
We have a lot of players, they are very young, so we have to keep that in mind when planning, he said. But what I see from [Musa] is incredible dynamism with his speed and quickness, and then technically he is a very good player. He is open to learning, so he has a very high ceiling for me.
Musa is one of those players who enjoys every ounce of their past success. He was born in New York while his family was vacationing there, which led to his U.S. citizenship. Musa spent his early childhood in the town of Castelfranco Veneto, in northern Italy, near Venice. His earliest football memories go back to a nearby park where he argued with his older brothers Abdul and Nabil.
Deadline for men’s football
|Olympic qualification||March 18-30|
|Friendly match against Jamaica||25. March.|
|Friendly v. N. Ireland||28. March.|
|Friendly match against Switzerland||30. May|
|League of Nations||June 3-6|
|Gold Cup||July (dates to be determined)|
|Olympic Games||21. July – 7. August|
|World Cup Qualifying Round||September to March 22nd.|
|2022 Football World Cup||21. November – 18. December 22|
When the family moved to East London at the age of 9, Musa already had the game in his blood and it helped him adapt to his new country and culture. He soon joined the Arsenal academy and worked his way up the ranks before leaving for Valencia at the age of 16. The reason was simple: He saw an easier path to the first team in Spain than at the Gunners, but wherever he went, he took that positivity with him.
I think my parents and the culture we live in have told me to be satisfied with little, if they say so, Musa says. I feel like every time there is something that is more than a little bit, I say: I’m very happy about that. I like to be grateful for everything in life and everything that happens. That’s what I am.
That approach has served Musa well in a league season in which he peaked with his first La Liga goal against Getafe last November, but also suffered lows that have reduced him to a substitute role.
He says it was hard. Obviously, it’s not perfect. They always want to have highlights and big games and win and win. But football isn’t, and if you understand that, I think that’s the most important thing, keep working and working. Then you have more options. You can’t give up. You have to keep working and trying to get better. And as a young player, I’m still very young in my career, I think it’s good to take this as a learning experience and learn from it.
Berhalter has long said he wants to ensure that dual nationals who choose the United States do so for the right reasons and feel a connection to the country. The American manager says he really felt a sense of pride in Musa for being American.
But aside from Musa’s play on the field and his body language around the U.S. team, there was a more subtle clue. His call to us was easy and natural when it came to Team USA, showing his unwavering commitment to this group. Although the journey is still long and the 2022 World Cup is just around the corner, the latest addition to the U.S. team is definitely on board.
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