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Men in Blazers Q&A: Yunus Musah on leaving Arsenal, joining Valencia, and being recruited by Gregg Berhalter

In international football, the midfielders are the ones on the pitch who are tasked with infusing the squad with strength and belief. They need to make smart decisions on the fly, while not being afraid of taking the right risks that can lift their side to greatness.

In that sense, the U.S. is very lucky to have Yunus Musah on its roster.

A self-described “citizen of the world,” Musah recently spoke with the Men in Blazers’ “American States United, Presented by ESPN+” podcast about a journey that started in the Boogie Down Bronx, and has taken him all the way to La Liga in Spain. The 19-year-old faced challenge after challenge along the way, but never stopped believing in himself. And now he’s poised to bring that belief to the USMNT in Qatar.

In this edited version of Roger Bennett’s interview with the U.S. star, here’s what Musah had to say about growing up in Italy, leaving the Arsenal Academy at 16, what it felt like to be recruited by Gregg Berhalter, and much more.

(And don’t forget that you can watch Musah every time he takes the pitch for Valencia, only on ESPN+. Head to espn.com/gfop to sign up today!)

ROG: "I want to go back to the beginning. You were born in the Bronx in 2002. Your parents are both Ghanaian. They were living in Italy at the time, and — this is the incredible moment — your mum happened to be in New York visiting a brother, your uncle, for a couple of months in the Boogie Down Bronx. She was pregnant, and you were born here. Tell us the story as it's told in your family."

YUNUS: "My father traveled his way from Ghana and was in Italy. He sacrificed to give me and my brothers a better life. My mom was pregnant, and she had to go take care of some family stuff in the Bronx. That's how I was born there, which is crazy." (Laughs.)

ROG: "Even though you moved back to Italy almost immediately a couple of months later, and you wouldn't see the United States again until you were 18 years of age, was this American connection, your place of birth, your American citizenship, was it something as a kid that you always felt made you a bit special?"

YUNUS: "Not everyone in Europe gets to say they were born in America, right? It's a huge thing. Everyone would love to be American, I'm telling you now. … Being in Europe's nice, but you just see American culture, and people are so into that, you know? People listen to the music. Growing up, you realize how big American rappers are, you had Beyonce and 50 Cent and all these that were played so much back when I was in Italy, actually. I remember my brother playing some Akon and stuff, you know? I loved the songs. … The American culture is great, really, and every time I go with the national team, I get to connect with that, and it's special."

ROG: "Until you were nine years old, you lived in Castelfranco Veneto, a town in Northern Italy. And it was there that you first started to play football with your older brothers on a field across from your house. Can you take us to those early days?"

YUNUS: "It was amazing. On summer days I would leave the house around 3 o'clock when the heat would come down a little bit, and we'd just play on that field for ages. From 3 o'clock to, like, 10 o'clock, we'd just be outside, not even just playing football, but just chasing around and riding bikes and just being very active, you know?"

ROG: "As a child of immigrants, do you feel like playing football in Italy helped you integrate into Italian culture?"

YUNUS: "Yeah, yeah, yeah, 100 percent. I feel like wherever I've been, not just in Italy, but wherever I've been, football is the starting point for me in connecting with people. That was the first thing that made things easier, being able to connect with people. You kind of earn their respect a bit and you start hanging around with them. After that first kick-about, you're good." (Laughs.)

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ROG: "When you were playing back then, and you'd shut your eyes as a kid and you'd dream, what did you think was possible? As a kid, were you like, 'World Cup, here I come'?"

YUNUS: "Nah, when I was young, playing in Giorgione (Calcio 2000), in Italy, I was like, 'Yo, I want to play on the first team (for Giorgione).' I loved seeing them train at the stadium and stuff. They looked so cool."

ROG: "Who was the team you supported as a kid?"

YUNUS: "I supported Juventus when I was in Italy."

ROG: "Then when you were nine years old, your family moved to London."

YUNUS: "So, I didn't understand it. I was like, I don't want to move, I've got all my friends here. But it happened so quick, and a couple weeks in, I started actually liking London, because I started learning about the city and everything. And that 2012 summer? Wow, that was a great summer. I was just playing football in the parks. Guys would come by the parks and play in the cages. East London, where I grew up, is such a big place in football. Everyone wants to play. And there's a lot of good players. It wasn't easy, playing in the cages."

ROG: "Can you take us into those cages? Because Mesut Ozil came on and told us he learned to play football in cages and it's just the greatest environment (in which) to develop your skills. Can you take us into the East London cages and tell us what that was like?"

YUNUS: "You earn a lot of respect in the cages. It's a tough environment in there. Everyone needs to win, hard barges into the cage and stuff. You don't get away with (anything) in the cage. That's how I learned to be smart as well. I still played in the cages when I was at Arsenal. Not in the later stages, but when I was young, I still played in the cages and I had to be careful not to get injured. But I just loved it."

ROG: "Shortly after you arrived you won a place at the Arsenal Academy. At that age, was the football different in England, at the Arsenal Academy, than what you were used to in Italy?"

YUNUS: "Yes, yes. When I played in my first game after Arsenal signed me, that game felt quite normal, just football. But in the training sessions, that's when it felt different. You had to learn a lot of tactical stuff, technical stuff. There was mannequin drills, the repetitiveness. They would just give you so much detail that academies give you at that level, which was different. And I was just so eager to learn that eventually I was able to learn a lot."

ROG: "You were with Arsenal for seven years, working your way up the Arsenal Academy ladder, alongside the likes of Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Folarin Balogun, with whom you played in the Under-18s. … Can you take us back to (those days)?”

YUNUS: "I remember players being just like they are now; all (being) one of the best at what they did. Bukayo (Saka), for example, I remember people telling him he wouldn't be able to play like that at the highest level, but he is still doing it (the same way) at the highest level. Credit to him. What a guy, what a guy."

ROG: "What about Emile Smith Rowe?"

YUNUS: "For me, Emile has gotten so much better. In those last years at the academy, he was always good, but he even got stronger, and he just transformed. He became how he is now, and, rightly so, he earned his place in the first team."

ROG: "And what was Folarin (Balogun) like?"

YUNUS: "He was really good at finishing, a physical striker who would spin you around to score. Very clinical. Wasn't that clinical at the beginning, but these guys worked so hard. You (could) just see the changes from hard work."

ROG: "How did your own game change then?"

YUNUS: "I was really sloppy with passing. I would miss out on so many passes, and make silly mistakes, stuff like that. I had a coach that was on to me about it. 'You have to do this, you have to get it right, you have to get it right.' … I'd say when I was like, 13 or 14, that's when I started cleaning my game up a bit more. I'm still trying to clean it up now, because, yeah, it's not the easiest thing to do, but I'm getting there. I'm not naturally technical, but I've worked on it, and now I can say that technically I'm alright."

ROG: "Arsenal offered you a scholarship contract at age 16 to stay with the club. But you, Yunus, are a 'Choose Your Own Adventure' kind of guy, and you seized the chance to move to Spain instead, signing for Valencia, the historic club on the Spanish Mediterranean who produced the likes of David Silva and Isco. It was a big, bold move for a 16-year-old, and you talked at the time of having a quicker, clearer path to the first team in Spain than you would have had at Arsenal. Can you describe your thinking in that moment?"

YUNUS: "Yeah, after all these years I had at Arsenal, I loved the club so much, like, that was my place. And then, yeah, it came to a point where I was like, 'OK, is Arsenal going to push me to get to where I want when I want or not?' So it didn't look like it. I was going to probably start off with the (under) 18s and then the (under) 23s, and then from there we'll see, you know? But Valencia, on the other hand, they offered me to be able to go there and play in their B team, which is in the third division in Spain, which was big, and train with the first team while I was doing that. That would be pushing me to get to the first team, you know? So (that) was like a big prospect to be in their first team at Valencia. That was what made my decision clear to go to Valencia. Because my dream was to play professional football, play first-team football."

ROG: "You were clearly a man of action then, and a man of action now. But it took just one year at the Valencia Academy before you were promoted to the first team. Making your La Liga debut at 17 years and 8 months old, starting against Levante, and becoming, depending on which nation's journalist was writing the story, both the first Englishman, and the first American, to debut for the club. When you stepped onto the field, fulfilling your dream to become a professional footballer at such a young age, what did it feel like, finally making it as a pro?"

YUNUS: "Yeah, firstly, I was shocked that I was starting. That was the biggest shock. I was expecting hopefully I'll get five minutes or something from the bench. But I started the game … and I felt a lot of pressure, obviously, because it's my chance and I have to take it. At the same time, you're like, OK ... you've done this a lot of times, just chill out, remember what you can do, remember you're good at this. I was like, 'Yo, this is what I've wanted. This is my chance, man, let's go and do it.' "

ROG: "You quickly broke two more records two months later, as the first non-Spanish player to ever score for Valencia, and becoming Valencia's youngest goal-scorer this century, sending eyebrows raised across the world, with an exhilarating breakaway solo goal against Getafe, in November 2020. … When you scored, what does that feel like, celebrating a goal in La Liga? Was that a moment, like, I belong?"

YUNUS: "You said it. A year ago I was struggling in the B team, and then scoring a goal now, it's something that I dreamed of for a very long time. When it happened, I was just trying to enjoy the moment, and enjoy the match."

ROG: "I think a lot of football people expected you to stick with (English national team), with the players that you knew, and the system you'd come through in, but instead you made a glorious Musah swerve and decided to commit to the United States of America. And Yunus, I know Gregg Berhalter worked hard recruiting you. He'd invited you to camp in 2020, had you play two friendlies with the team. Can you take us inside those conversations you had with him, what you two discussed, and what you ultimately worked out?"

YUNUS: "I spoke with Gregg and (the assistant coach), and they both told me about the plans for the national team, and how the team is changing and they're trying to get players like me involved, and it's a young group at the moment, you know? And they're looking into qualifying for this World Cup, and being able to carry on developing us through to the '26 World Cup. Having the U.S. first team manager calling me at 17 was huge. I thought it was going to be the Under-20s manager or something, but it was the first team manager. So that was a huge honor to have. And they told me, no pressure, obviously, like, I don't have to make a decision now. They won't force me to make any decisions, and that made it easier for me."

ROG: "Ultimately, you said, 'My heart told me to make this choice with the United States, and I stuck with that.' But what was it that clinched the decision for you? Was it like at Valencia … simply the prospect of becoming a central player much sooner than you would have been able to, say with England or Ghana?"

YUNUS: "Yeah, 100 percent. That definitely kicked in my mind, thinking, I'm playing in the first team. Being able to play in that men's team at this age is huge. And being at the camp in November, I just loved that camp so much, and I was like, this is something I want to be a part of then."

ROG: "I remember talking to all the national team players back then, around that camp, Yunus, and they all talked about how hard they were working behind the scenes (to get you to join the U.S. team). Tyler Adams, Gio Reyna, Christian Pulisic, that they were just all over your social, being like, 'Come on, come on and play, man.' Just hammering you. Did you feel that?"

YUNUS: "Yeah, definitely. Those are great guys. I loved being with them in camp. We're kind of very similar. It's a young group, so you feel like you're from the same generation. You like the same kind of things, you talk the same. Make the same kind of jokes. The vibe is the same, and you feel at home, you know? It's a great time, and with that coach, I just love it."

ROG: "When the U.S. finally qualified for the World Cup, almost a year to the day after you committed your international future to the national team, can you describe those emotions?"

YUNUS: "I felt like we could finally breathe. It's not easy to qualify for a World Cup. I know that now. I was just trying to live the moment and think back on all the matches and all the hard work we put in, and finally enjoy that moment of, now we've done it. Now we're going to go to the World Cup."

ROG: "The U.S. are going to play England, November 25th, two teams you could have played for. It's the Yunus Musah derby. How much are you looking forward to that one?"

YUNUS: "Yeah, so that game, it's such a special game, being able to play against England. Being able to play potentially against Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, people I've played with. At a World Cup. It can't get bigger than that. This is an experience I'm just trying to really enjoy and do well in, because it's a really big game, playing against England."

ROG: "Your journey is remarkable. Your story is one of challenge after challenge after challenge, that you've overcome with true strength, and also risk-taking. What quality is it about yourself that you look at that has allowed you to do what you've done? And at 19 years old, to be about to play in massive moments, in massive games for our nation?"

YUNUS: "I'm quite religious, so I always go back to thanking God for everything that's happened. Because without Him I wouldn't be able to do the things I have. But then obviously, after praying and everything, you also have to put the work in, and you get rewarded for it. I feel like, since I was in London, playing for Arsenal, I was always putting in the extra work. My family was really strict on me, not to fall into the wrong crowd, so that helped me stay focused as well. When school would finish, I would go home and quickly change, and go to training, get there like an hour early and just train. Things like this helped me really improve, and I was just so determined to become a professional footballer. I was like, 'I've got to do what it takes to do it.' Every information that a coach would tell me; nutritionist, sports scientist would tell me, I'd try and listen to it, and so much hard work was put into it. No one can tell me I didn't work hard."