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USMNT rising star Yunus Musah always brings a smile, and a lot of skill when he plays

The 19-year-old midfielder with roots in four countries is a name to know for the World Cup. He's already making a name for himself in Europe with big Spanish club Valencia.

Yunus Musah (center) working out at a U.S. men's soccer team practice session in suburban Cincinnati on May 30.
Yunus Musah (center) working out at a U.S. men's soccer team practice session in suburban Cincinnati on May 30.Read moreJonathan Tannenwald / Staff

CINCINNATI — There’s something about Yunus Musah that stands out.

In fact, there are a lot of things about Musah that stand out, from his suite of soccer skills to his multinational roots. The 19-year-old was born in New York City to Ghanaian parents, grew up in Italy and England, and has made his professional career in Spain.

Watch him play for the U.S. national team, and you’ll quickly see how well he combines with his fellow midfielders, especially Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams. You see his passing vision and his fearlessness in charging up the field with the ball.

Watch him play club soccer for Valencia, and you see him battle with some of the world’s biggest stars and biggest teams. You might see he can score, even if he doesn’t do it often.

The other thing you won’t see from watching him on TV or even in the stands.

Spend even a little time with him, and you’ll realize he’s always smiling and looking on the bright side of things.

It’s not easy to be that way these days, with all the ills of the world: pandemic, war, racism, and so much else. And it’s understandable if any soccer player in the high-pressure environments Musah deals with finds it hard to stay positive.

Not only is Musah working to make it to a World Cup (which he likely will), but he plays for a historical giant in Spain that has fallen on hard times. Valencia has been so poorly run by its ownership in recent years that, at the team’s season finale on May 21, tens of thousands of ticket-holding fans stood outside the stadium during the game and protested instead of going in.

(Imagine Philadelphia fans doing that.)

» READ MORE: The dream has come true for Brenden Aaronson, with Leeds United and the U.S. men’s soccer team

But that smile is still there, built on a sense of perspective that sounds far older than a teenager’s.

“You’ve got to remember that you’re very lucky to be the position you are, and everything is a privilege, really,” he said. “To the smallest thing, like waking up in the morning and being able to walk to the bathroom, that’s a privilege as well — not everyone gets to do that. After a loss or something, after a tough day, coming home worried about the result when other people have to worry about more serious things, that really helps keep the mood and realize how lucky we are.”

It’s been only 15 months since Musah formally committed to play for the United States, after playing for England’s under-15 through under-18 teams. There was a recruiting battle for him, in a way that felt a little like American college sports. When the U.S. won it, fans celebrated as they would in the SEC or Big Ten.

Musah didn’t play in last June’s Concacaf Nations League Final Four or in the opening three World Cup qualifiers. But he started in 10 of the last 11 and has fit in so well that it now feels like he’s been around for a while.

» READ MORE: ESPN’s Martín Ainstein on Sergiño Dest, Yunus Musah, and biking around Spain to tell stories of La Liga

“Since the first day, I’ve never looked back,” he said. “I’ve always really been happy with my decision. And even before I made this decision, I made sure that during [that time], whether there’s tough moments or bad or good moments, I would always think, you know, try to make this work and not look back.”

Musah has embraced his Americanness beyond the field too. After the Nations League games, he went to Manhattan with fellow New York-born globetrotter Tim Weah. It was the first time that Musah got to really know the Big Apple. Now he has seen much more of the country from the U.S. team’s travels in qualifying.

“Whenever I land into the U.S., I see it like it’s a completely different world, and I enjoy taking it in,” he said. “It’s a lovely place to come to … the big streets, and stuff like that, and the food. It feels like a good vibe.”

The vibe is good when he’s on the field, too, even when he’s not in the spotlight. His stats in Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Morocco were impressive: 54 touches, 37-of-41 passing, four recoveries, and three clearances. And while the U.S. lineup was listed as its usual 4-3-3, it often played as a 3-2-2-3 — with Musah in a deeper-than-usual role next to Adams.

“I thought he was excellent,” U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter said. “When you play the 3-2-2-3 type of shape, if you have a guy deep that can take people on the dribble and break lines dribbling, it’s really valuable.”

Medford’s Brenden Aaronson also was impressed as he played one of the central attacking roles in front of Musah.

“Yunus is an unbelievable player,” Aaronson said. “It showed tonight with the ball, without the ball. … He’s a complete midfielder, and he’s only going to grow with time, and it was really fun being out in the middle today.”

We won’t know until Sunday how the U.S. will line up against Uruguay in the marquee game of this June stretch (5 p.m., Fox29, Univision 65, TUDN). But if Musah plays, wherever he plays, he’ll be worth watching.

» READ MORE: Brenden Aaronson, Christian Pulisic spark USMNT’s 3-0 win over Morocco