Yunus Musah has never looked back
A year and 3 months since Yunus Musah committed his international career to the USA, we look at the trajectory of his time with USMNT & consider whether he's ever had a second thought
Watching Yunus Musah slide across the mud at Estadio Cuscatlan in the 78th minute of last Tuesday’s Nations League match- palms to the sky as he sat in the mess of it, mouth agape as he processed the mud- I couldn’t help but wonder if he wondered, what have I done.
The 19-year-old Arsenal product featured for England’s youth national teams from U15-U18 levels and as a teenager in London, he imagined that’s where he’d play. He could have represented England, Italy, or Ghana’s crest in international football. But last March, he decided to represent the USA’s.
456 days since that fateful decision, there sat Yunus, king of the mud in San Salvador.
Behind him, Jesus Ferreira took the ball and had a word with the ref, who held his red card in the air as if he intended to card the whole game, the whole situation, just all of it, really. A stone-faced Christian Pulisic took the ball unceremoniously, then bounced it forcefully into the mud before placing it. Objections swarmed around him as El Salvador was reduced to 10 men.
Mere minutes before that chaos, other chaos: Tyler Adams all but tackled Darwin Ceren to the ground in a display of mounting frustration. It was a scrap of a game, hardly soccer, which they were losing amidst a monsoon in El Salvador. In the scrum that followed, Christian Pulisic was first to arrive with a shoulder to Ceren’s back. Never to be left out of a tussle, Weston McKennie came barreling into frame nearly decking Cristian Martinez to the ground, then mimed into Selecta’s outraged response that these guys were talking too much.
As tension quelled, Jesus Ferreira was seen smiling an enormous grin into the mess of things, as if all of this was just hysterical, whatever was happening, whatever was being said, just absolutely hysterical, and I was left with the distinct impression that these guys were having fun.
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10 months earlier, the USA launched their World Cup redemption campaign inside that very same estadio. “Fun” was not the word. The start of qualification featured a chaotic draw with high stakes, notable for nerves and inexperience as much as anything else.
Yunus Musah wasn’t with them.
Musah had in fact played just 378 minutes across 6 international friendlies by October 7th, 2021, the day he added his name to the USA Redemption Boys Campaign™. It was there in Texas that Yunus played his first competitive match with the USA, slotting into the midfield he’d become central to as the Americans sought their ticket to Qatar.
The performance was a premonition of the Musah future: athleticism, speed, ball-carrying, ability to maneuver in tight spaces, covered ground. And in a 2-0 defeat of Jamaica notable for another 18 year old (Texas-boy Ricardo Pepi bagged a brace) the most impactful development that evening is undoubtedly the dawn of the midfield dubbed “MMA”.
Musah’s second match in World Cup Qualifying was tough, tough for him and tough for the team. Gregg Berhalter rotated 7 starters in Panama City. The “MMA” midfield became “MLA”; Musah-McKennie-Adams was now Musah-Lletget-Acosta.
Estadio Rommel Fernandez welcomed USMNT with chants, signs, and a pre-match film commemorating 2017, when Panama qualified for the World Cup and the United States did not. The theme of the hot, humid, Panama City night full of horns was Panama believing they would again. They defeated the Americans 1-0. Musah struggled and was subbed at the half.
Back in the USA, days later, the squad defeated Costa Rica 2-1 in Columbus. Musah looked the best we’d seen him yet. For the first time in qualifying, he paired with Tim Weah and Sergino Dest along the right. They worked brilliantly together and were the strongest force on field. Dest had the first goal and Weah forced an own goal for the second. Yunus Musah was named Man of the Match.
In November, we had another ‘dos a cero’ for the history books with Mexico in Cincinnati. Freezing rain, America’s loudest crowd, an eye gouge or two, a few healthy scrums: the intensity brought the fire out, and that evening was the most formidable we’ve seen the team.
Days later, with a bit of deflation, they eked out a draw in Kingston. Jamaica’s Michail Antonio took the air out with a banger so abrupt and striking that the entire press box gasped in unison. It leveled the score after an early goal from Tim Weah.
The winter window featured Concacaf at its finest theatrics, as both the Americans and Canadians bent over backwards to schedule their games in the coldest tundras their expansive territories could find. A few Hondurans with hypothermia later (and an American goalkeeper who *definitely did not get frostbite*) the US ended their 11th match lurching toward redemption with 21 points and ranked second behind Canada, having defeated El Salvador and Honduras in their own frigid winter, and then lost 0-2 to Canada in theirs.
There were three more matches at the start of springtime, last chance to redeem what was lost before. They featured a hard fought draw in Mexico, a resounding victory to all but seal it in Orlando, and one last loss in Central America.
Finally- confirmed beneath the roar of Los Ticos- redemption was found on a field in Central America, and the boys punched their ticket to Qatar.
Yunus Musah started every competitive match save one since his October debut in qualifying, playing in Texas, Panama, Ohio, Jamaica, Canada, Minnesota, Mexico, Florida and Costa Rica.
Welcome to the USA, Yunus. What a way to etch your name into the crest.
The week before the mud match, US Soccer trotted out each player in camp to sit before the last domestic gathering of media before Qatar.
Somebody asked Yunus: Now that you’ve gone through qualifying, through the highs and lows, how do you feel about your decision to play for the US?
“Since the first day, I’ve never looked back.”
No regret when it was tough, no regret when it was cold, no regret when he went sliding through a mud puddle in El Salvador last Tuesday night. No regret, because he’s glad to be here. No regret, also, because it’s not in Yunus Musah’s nature to look back.
“I’ve always been really happy with my decision. But even before I made my decision I made sure that during… whether there’s tough moments or bad moments or good moments, I would always think … you know… try to make this work and not look back, because otherwise you’ll be stuck in the middle. So I made the decision and I stuck with it and I’m really happy with it”
Still just 19, Yunus is no stranger to big decisions and leaving home. The life he’s led has ingrained in him an infectious positivity, a deep-seated gratitude to be wherever he is, and an incredible adaptability to keep moving forward in life.
“You gotta remember that you’re very lucky to be in the position that you are, and everything is a privilege really. To the smallest thing, like waking up in the morning and being able to walk to the bathroom, that’s a privilege as well.”
When Andscape profiled Musah for a Black Stars of La Liga series last year, he introduced himself to the camera: “I’m Yunus Musah. I am black. I am African. I’m American. I’m Muslim. I’m Italian. I’m English. And I’m an immigrant. I’m a citizen of the world”.
He moves forward through life with faith, carrying the precious pieces of varied places with him as he goes:
Italy is where he fell in love with the game. There was a park by his house in Castelfranco- he talks about it all the time- and it was there, he says, he learned to love playing football. He’d play with his brothers for hours and hours as a kid, racking up the hours toward 6 in the summer. Italy is also where he remembers his first World Cup. He watched Ghana with his parents in 2010- the last African nation standing in the first African World Cup- the nation where his parents emigrated from.
But things got tough, he says, and his father moved the family to London. It was one of the first big changes in life and he didn’t want to leave. He’d learned just how well things can work out.
Musah soon found himself training with Arsenal, then getting call ups to the England youth national teams. Soon enough he was playing professionally in Spain. The trust gained from those transitions is something he’s carried with him to USMNT.
What pieces of the USA does he carry now, then? His place of birth, for one thing. The crest he chose to wear- over three others- committing his international career to the vision of what USMNT is building. And not for nothing, the identity built by brotherhood, forged by trial: a year of World Cup Qualifying stretched across eight nations with no shortage of tumult throughout.
Like he said after defeating Costa Rica 2-1 in Ohio, celebrating his Man of the Match performance before the cheers of a sold out crowd: “I feel American, man!”
The mud match in El Salvador was more than a draw in a storm, it was a milestone in an evolution. Not beautiful football, but a team ready for the fight… enjoying it, even. With Yunus Musah as the clear standout performance, they battled their way from behind to get the draw as Jordan Morris scored in stoppage time. And in the waning seconds, they seemed to believe they’d get one more.
By all accounts, this team looks set to be the youngest team in November’s World Cup. They’re unafraid. Believing in their own potential, united by age and experience and vision, this could be a team that will really surprise. The talent potential is higher than it’s ever been, and that good old American belief is as strong as ever before.1
United and ready to prove what they can do, this is a team building toward a vision, and that vision is a new era of American soccer whose peaks have the highest potential. They’re working along that road together, the “mud match” may well be remembered as a key point upon it, and Yunus Musah has never looked back.
Multiple players when asked in camp this June for their November aspirations, responded: why not win the whole thing?