PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) — Yunus Musah visited New York in June with teammate Tim Weah and had a wide-eyed view of the big city.
“I remember going to the — what’s that called — that big tall building?” Musah said with a chuckle.
It’s Empire State Building, he was prompted.
“The view from there was crazy,” Musah said. “I could see the whole of New York.”
Musah is in the shadow of some different tall buildings this weekend, the skyscrapers of Panama City.
Going into Sunday night’s World Cup qualifier against Panama, on the fourth anniversary of America’s infamous defeat at Trinidad, the 13th-ranked U.S. team leads the eight-nation final round on goal difference over Mexico. No. 68 Panama is three points back following a 1-0 loss on a muddy field in El Salvador.
Musah was born in the Bronx on Nov. 29, 2002, while his mother Amina was visiting from Ghana and staying with her brother Razak. He grew up in Castelfranco, Italy, before the family moved to London, where he joined Arsenal’s youth system.
Musah was part of England’s youth national teams and signed with Valencia before the 2019-20 season. He debuted on Sept. 13 last year against Levante at age 17, and on Nov. 1 against Getafe became the club’s youngest non-Spanish scorer.
While picked for England’s roster at the 2019 European Under-17 Championship, he didn’t get into any of the team’s three matches. In the run-up to that tournament, England traveled to the Nike International Friendlies in Lakewood Ranch, Florida, in October and November 2018, and he twiced faced a U.S. team that included George Bello and Gianluca Busio, now part of the national team, and Joe Scally, likely to be called up soon.
Nico Estévez, a Gregg Berhalter assistant who followed his boss from Columbus to the national team, had spent eight years at Valencia and was notified that Musah had a U.S. passport by then-Valencia youth coach Rubén Mora.
“I liked a lot his dribbling, his technical and physical ability to break lines,” Estévez said. “Also, his understanding on when to pass the ball, be a connector, and his physicality to cover ground defensively.”
Estévez contacted Musah to express U.S. interest.
“I was really surprised. I never expected it,” Musah recalled Saturday. “It was a great moment. It opened my eyes up.”
Estévez started helping Musah, analyzing video and advising. Berhalter spoke with Musah and the family.
“It was a lot of conversations about what this young group could do and the potential of this young team, the players we had in the pool, how we saw him fitting into our team, talking about America and what we want to do as a group,” Berhalter said.
Musah made his U.S. debut last Nov. 12 in an exhibition at Wales. Four days later in a friendly vs. Panama, he became the first American to start multiple matches before his 18th birthday.
“I felt like the manager really wanted me to be here, be a part of this group, be part of his plans,” Musah said. “And that makes me feel kind of special.”
Musah committed long-term to the U.S. in March and finished with 32 La Liga appearances last season. He was on the American roster for the CONCACAF Nations League final four at Denver in June but didn’t get into either game.
“He wasn’t playing regularly for his club,” Berhalter said. “We didn’t feel like it was the right time.”
Musah missed the opening three World Cup qualifiers in September. Back this week, he looked forward to the qualifier against Jamaica in Austin, Texas, then received an inconclusive COVID test on Wednesday morning only to get a negative PCR result back at dinner time.
“It was really annoying, but I’m glad it was a quick process and they realized there was nothing,” Musah said.
While Valencia uses Musah as a winger, Berhalter positions him centrally.
“In the midfield, the game is like 360,” Musah said. “Sometimes I feel like it’s hard to adjust, you really have to check your surroundings a lot in the midfield.”
He made his first competitive start against the Reggae Boyz and was the central figure in a 15-second end-to-end move that led to the first goal in a 2-0 win. Goalkeeper Matt Turner rolled the ball to Sergiño Dest, who passed to Musah. He took took five touches during a 25-yard run and returned the ball wide to Dest, whose cross was headed in by Ricardo Pepi.
“Yunus, you give him the ball, he’s driving 20, 30 yards, wants to have the ball at his feet,” midfielder Kellyn Acosta said.
Musah has a quick laugh and speaks English, Italian, Spanish and Hausa, a language of Ghana. He gives the U.S. a creative weapon alongside Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie.
“It’s difficult, man, when you have someone dribbling at you who’s that agile and that mobile and keeps the ball that close to him,” Berhalter said.
Weah said Musah went around New York by himself to soak in the atmosphere.
“Seeing that he wants to connect a lot more with his American culture is great for him,” Weah said, “and it’s great for us.”
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