Balogun USMNT 2023Getty

'These are the moments' - USMNT striker Folarin Balogun sees Copa America as stage to prove he belongs among very best

Folarin Balogun is a self-described "football lover" but he has a confession to make: growing up in the UK, he was never really able to watch the Copa America. That damn time difference - even for the obsessed, it's almost impossible to overcome.

"Not just the Copa," he says with a smile, . "American sporting events, boxing, MMA - it's always been past my bedtime!"

Yet there is something that has always drawn Balogun to this tournament: the names. Like most other fans of this sport, he knows them well. Icons of the game such as Lionel Messi, Ronaldo, Adriano, Luis Suarez, Carlos Valderrama and Alexis Sanchez have solidified legacies in the Copa. Their highlights will live on forever. Success in this tournament is undeniable proof of a player's quality. If you can emerge at this particular tournament, you've earned your place among the greats.

For years, those names must have felt like they were a world away from Balogun. Growing up in London, all they were merely highlight reels, YouTube compilations and social media chatter. He grew up idolizing those closer to home, stars such as Thierry Henry, but he always had one eye on the stories being written on the other side of the Atlantic.

This summer, as he heads into his first major tournament with the U.S. men's national team, those names are at the forefront of Balogun's mind. He's writing his own story now and, in some ways, this summer is a turning point for the 22-year-old striker.

Balogun is still new, both to the USMNT and the world stage. He only made his big switch to the U.S. last March, doing so, at least partly, because the USMNT offered him a legitimate pathway to be great. The team needed him and, in a way, he needed the U.S.

That's been front-and-center in Balogun's thinking for this summer. For years, he heard about the Copa America; now, he's about to live it. He sees it as a proving ground. He sees stars such as Vinicius Jr., Luis Diaz and Darwin Nunez in his path. He sees Messi opposite him in a potential final. He sees a chance to solidify his place among them and show that he can be the difference-maker who takes the USMNT to a different level.

"I'm fully confident," Balogun says. "I've done it before. I've competed with probably the best player in the world, Kylian Mbappe.

"It's something I just need to do consistently now. I feel like these are the moments and these are the opportunities. It's something that I need to embrace."

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