Why Yunus Musah chose the USMNT: Kinship with stars, connection with coaches and belief in the project

Musah's USMNT choice has Laurens excited for their future (1:25)

Julien Laurens is excited for the future of the USMNT after Yunus Musah's decision to commit to the U.S. (1:25)

The recruitment battle for dual national talents is one that every coach is familiar with, which is why March 4 may go down as a day to remember for the United States men's team. It was on that day that manager Gregg Berhalter received a text from Valencia midfielder Yunus Musah with a simple request: "Coach, can I talk to you?"

Berhalter said yes. At that point, Musah -- who, in addition to the U.S., was eligible to represent Ghana, England or Italy -- informed him that he would be pledging his international future to the red, white and blue.

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"It was quite a happy conversation," Musah told ESPN in an exclusive interview. "I told [Berhalter] I appreciate everything and how he welcomed me to the team, and I just want to embark on this journey with everyone else and the USA."

Berhalter wasn't as composed. While this was the latest recruiting coup of a player with multiple international options, a list highlighted by Barcelona defender Sergino Dest, Musah is looked upon as another special talent.

"I screamed into the phone. I gave a loud 'Yeah!'" Berhalter told ESPN. "But it was good. It's not only judging him as a player, just as a person. It's great to have someone like that in your team."

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When one country wins out on a player with multiple international options, the others lose. It is a zero-sum game that, in some instances, forces players to feel like they're torn in two. The 18-year-old's ties to England in particular ran deep, as he not only lived in London starting at age 9, but played extensively for the Three Lions at youth level, though never in official competition. Musah even took the field twice for England against the U.S. at the under-17 level, including the 2017 Nike friendlies in which England prevailed 1-0. In this case, the Valencia midfielder isn't walled off from the emotions that came with saying no to England. And there were other suitors as well.

"It was a difficult situation, as England have done so much for me," he said. "When someone's nice to you, you don't want to kind of leave them upside down. But at the end, you have to make the best decision for yourself.

"I was getting so many phone calls from a lot of different people, a lot of different organizations. And that sort of made it hard, and also the fact that I represented England in the past. That's why it was a really hard decision to make."

But he added, "This is just so exciting. I can't wait to get started."

Thus concluded a 20-month recruiting process by the U.S. to win Musah over, one that was pitch-perfect every step of the way. It started soon after Musah signed with Valencia in the summer of 2019, when the Spanish club notified Nico Estevez, a U.S. men's assistant (and former Valencia coach), that there was a player with a U.S. passport on the roster. Berhalter soon reached out with a get-to-know-you phone call to make Musah aware of the U.S. team's interest. That call eventually opened the door for a meeting with the player's family to discuss the U.S. program in more depth.

Like most recruiting battles, relationships played a key role, and the bond between Musah and Estevez took on immense importance. Musah says that from the moment the U.S. first made contact, he and Estevez spoke at least once every two weeks. Berhalter added that there were times when his assistant and the player spoke as often as every other day.

Estevez's knowledge of Valencia helped Musah navigate his way through his first season with the club's B-team, as well the player's initial foray with the first team in the 2020-21 campaign. He helped him adapt to life in a new country as well: Estevez would talk Musah through his games and send him video clips. Berhalter recalled that the level of trust between the two was such that Musah began soliciting advice and video from Estevez instead of the U.S. assistant being the one to reach out.

"We just speak as people, really," Musah said of his relationship with Estevez. "He didn't really treat it as player-coach or something -- more just friends, you could say. He talked to me about how my week is going. He helped me analyze and improve my game. He understands some of the things that I'm going through."

By the time Berhalter invited Musah to a national team training camp in Wales last November, much of the groundwork had been laid, but there was still work to be done. Fortunately for the U.S., a wave of talented players have entered the program in recent years, including Juventus' Weston McKennie, RB Leipzig's Tyler Adams, Borussia Dortmund's Gio Reyna and Dest. They made sure that Musah arrived to a warm embrace.

The positive vibes paid off, and if there was ever a telltale sign that Musah was leaning towards the U.S., it was evident in the pregame team photo ahead of his international debut against Wales last November. These photos are usually about players having their game face on, all intensity and concentration. That was largely the case here, save for Musah, who sported the widest of smiles.

"I told myself, 'Listen, just enjoy this moment, because it only comes once,'" he said. "And surprisingly enough, the coaches as well told me the same thing, the players told me the same thing and so what I was thinking about was enjoying the game. And as you can see in the photos, I was enjoying it already."

Musah delivered an impressive debut, helping the U.S. control the match from the center of midfield in what ended up being a 0-0 draw. That role is a change from where he has been typically deployed with Valencia, where he's mostly played as a wide midfielder in a 4-4-2. But the center of midfield is where he -- and Berhalter -- feel he's best-suited. It gives him the chance to show off his range of skills: his confidence running with the ball, his vision when it comes to connecting on his passes and his energy on defense.

"I feel like I can play in a lot of systems," he said. "But particularly with the U.S., I feel like we want to be on the field and express ourselves. And when you're on the field and trying to express yourself, I think the best version of yourself comes out. And that's really important."

Granted, it wasn't just about Musah choosing the U.S. The player also had to impress beyond what happened on the field, but Musah passed those tests with ease.

"He endears himself to everyone," said Berhalter about Musah. "He's such a good guy, such a friendly guy to be around; great demeanor, great attitude. The thing about him is when you're around him, you can just feel this warmth from him."

Musah was also all-in on the U.S. team's anti-racism message before the Wales game, one in which his warm-up jacket had the message "United As One."

"A lot of people talk about racism and how they don't like it, but not everyone does something about it," he said. "And the fact that we decided to do something about it was a real big thing, and I definitely wanted to be involved and be a part of it. So, I wrote my own message 'United as One,' because no one should have to go through that alone. We're together in this."

The friendly matches cemented the bond, as the U.S. went on to beat Panama 6-2 in the second match of that international window. The U.S. staff and players didn't let up with their recruiting pitch, as evidenced by the flow of communication between Musah and his U.S. teammates on Twitter and Instagram. But the hard work had been done.

"I think [about] the amount of time and effort that Gregg and the staff put into it, always contacting me since last year, and also get me to come to camp, and see how it goes," he said. "Everyone was really welcoming. Everyone was great, like it was as if we've seen each other or met each other before. And that that helps me because I'm new, and they welcomed me really well. In the end, we played two games really well and also had fun."

Berhalter is quick to remind everyone that Musah is 18. There is a lot of growing left to be done, but the U.S. manager also can't help but be excited by what the future could look like.

"With a lot of our players, they're really young, so we have to just keep that in mind when we're projecting," he said. "But what I see from [Musah] is just a tremendous dynamic with his speed and quickness, and then he's technically a very good player. He's open to learning, so to me, he has a really high ceiling."

Musah is one of those players who appreciates every ounce of his success so far. He was born in New York City while his family was vacationing there, which made him eligible for U.S. citizenship. Musah spent his early childhood in the northern Italian town of Castelfranco Veneto near Venice. His earliest soccer memories are of walking to a nearby park and squaring off against his older brothers, Abdul and Nabil.

By the time the family moved to east London when Musah was 9, the game was already in his blood, and it helped him adapt to a new country and culture. He soon joined Arsenal's academy and rose through the ranks before departing for Valencia when he was 16. The reason was simple: He saw an easier path to first-team minutes in Spain than he did with the Gunners, but everywhere he went, he took that positive attitude with him.

"I think my parents and the culture that we've been around, I think that told me to be happy with little, if you say," Musah said. "I feel like whenever there's anything that's bigger than a little, I say, 'I'm most happy about that.' I like to be grateful for everything in life, and whatever comes about. This is how I am."

That approach has served Musah well in a league season in which he experienced the high of his first La Liga goal against Getafe last November, as well as some lows that have seen him reduced to a substitute's role.

"It's been tough," he says. "It's not the ideal thing obviously. You want to always have ups and have great games and win and win. But football isn't like that, and if you understand that, then I think that's the main thing, just keep working and working. Then you're going to have more 'ups' potentially. You can't give up. You have to keep working and keep trying to improve. And as a young player, I'm very young in my career, I think it's great to take this as a learning experience, and made sure I learn from it."

Berhalter has long said he wanted to make sure that when a dual national chooses the U.S., they do it for the right reasons, and that they feel a connection to the country. The U.S. manager says that in Musah, he "really sensed how proud he was to be an American."

But beyond Musah's play on the field and his body language around the U.S. team, there was a more subtle indication. His use of "we" readily and naturally when referring to the U.S. team flowed easily, showing his unforced connection to this group. While their journey has a long distance left to run, with the 2022 World Cup looming just over the horizon, the U.S. team's latest recruit is definitely on board.