He was an academy star at Arsenal and captained England youth teams, but it was being born on a family holiday to New York that paved the way for Valencia midfielder Yunus Musah to realize his World Cup dream.
England manager Gareth Southgate suggested he would like Musah’s future to be with the Three Lions. But the 19-year-old, who was also eligible for Ghana, chose the United States.
On Friday, he may well come up against one of his former academy team-mates in Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka as the US take on England in their second match in Group B in Qatar.
“I am both really – English and American,” Musah told BBC Sport. “I had a great time in England. I loved every time, had a lot of camps, great people and everything.
“It came to a point where I was playing in the first team [at Valencia] and playing in the under-19s when I went to the national team.
“Gregg (Berhalter, USA manager) called me and told me about the project with the US. He told me how much he wanted me in the team and I was just 17 at the time. For a first-team manager to want me that badly really helped my decision.
“Things happen in mysterious ways, I was born in the US for a reason. Now I’m playing for the national team and I’m loving it. I’ve had to make a few big decisions in my career and they have paid off.”
England and the USA drew 1-1 in their last match at a World Cup, in South Africa in 2010. Musah had a feeling they were set to meet again.
“What a special game it will be,” he said. “Having lived in England, knowing how England are as a society as people, just to share the field with them and knowing the whole of England is going to be watching that game, as well as the US, it’s just a special moment so I hope it goes well.
“It will be the biggest game of my career.
“I think I will be smiling more than usual. The memories of how things turned out, it’s crazy. To play against England on the biggest stage, to share the field with hopefully Bukayo as well, that will be crazy.”
‘I felt I was ready, Valencia gave me the opportunity’
Musah says playing with his older brothers is the reason he progressed so quickly. He signed for Arsenal only a few months after arriving in England but did not realize the significance of his achievement until he started getting recognition from his new school friends.
“I got there, got settled and went to school and then just joined the local team,” he said. “Straight away I got scouted for Arsenal, that was crazy. I was just the happiest kid because playing football, going to school, things were great.
“I remember the day. I moved to England on 12 January, 2012 and in the Easter break I was trialling for Arsenal and getting signed, that’s how quickly it happened.
“It was really overwhelming and I didn’t understand the importance of it until I got into school and then all of a sudden everyone was like ‘Yo, this guy plays for Arsenal’ and I was like so ‘wow it’s a big deal out here you know’. It was a big thing and I was happy for it.”
Things did not slow down for Musah who took academy football in his stride, playing with Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, and with Liverpool’s Harvey Elliott on international duty.
He captained Arsenal youth teams and says they shaped him into the player he is today.
However, Musah did not stay in north London and push into the first team. He left the club after seven years and chose to join La Liga side Valencia in 2019.
“At the time I was 16 and I felt I could make the step to go into first-team football and felt I was ready for it,” he said.
“I had a lot of confidence in myself. Why still be with the 18s, 23s? I want to play in the first team.
“A lot of people said it was too early to think that and I agree it can be too early, and you have to be patient, but I just felt like I could do it.
“Valencia gave me a great offer to come here, start with the B team, train with the first team and push me to the first team when I earned it. That opportunity, a big team in Spain, caught my attention.
“My first season in the B team wasn’t actually great. I played 17 matches and did not even start most of them. It was tough times. That shaped me to get stronger and better.
“Preseason came and I just stayed here [in the first team]. I couldn’t go back down. I just wanted to stay in the first team and work hard.”
‘We want to change the way the world views US soccer’
Musah was the first Englishman to play for Valencia and since switching allegiances he is also the first American to represent the club.
His is one of a number of talented young Americans playing their club football in Europe and Musah says a team labeled USA’s ‘golden generation’ want to send a message to the rest of the world.
“One of our targets as a group is to change the way the world views American soccer,” he says. “Now we have the opportunity to do that at the World Cup.
“We’re so ambitious. We want to go all the way. We’re thinking game by game. Taking it like that, the next thing you know you’re further down the competition.
“That’s what I think we should do, although I’ve never been in a World Cup before. Gregg has played in two World Cups – he’s a manager that knows and I trust him.”
The World Cup will be a culmination of gambles that Musah has taken throughout his career, but he feels he’s made the right choices.
“When I made my decisions, both playing for Valencia and the US, I said ‘whatever happens I’m going to make sure the situation works for the best and I don’t regret it’,” he said.
“If something goes wrong down the path, I shouldn’t think that ‘I wish I did this or that’ just carry on or make it work.
“Everything happens for a reason so I don’t regret it at all. I was happy with what happened at Arsenal and England but I don’t regret my decisions.”