The forwards of the United States men’s national team have had a terrific week.
Jordan Pefok of Swiss club BSC Young Boys scored the biggest goal of his career in the UEFA Champions League group stage opener against Manchester United, scoring a stoppage-time game-winner.
Meanwhile, 18-year-old Ricardo Pepi keeps going strong. Since returning to his FC Dallas team after his World Cup qualifying heroics, he had a goal and an assist in two games.
Pefok’s goal should quell some of the speculation surrounding the younger Pepi, who was personally involved in each of the USA’s goals in a 4-1 comeback win over Honduras that resurrected the Americans’ World Cup qualifying season. He was the first American player to score in a World Cup qualifier on his international debut in 17 years, and he was also the program’s second-youngest goal scorer.
Pepi’s performance may have elicited a more powerful response than his piece. Many in attendance demanded that Pepi be promoted to the top of the USMNT striker group immediately, as the squad looks to build on its five points and third-place finish in CONCACAF’s 14-game qualification campaign, which begins in early October with matches against Jamaica, Panama, and Costa Rica.
It’s understandable that the enthusiasm — or is it desperation? — exists.
For starters, the striker or center forward position on a soccer team is the most visible and has the most clear metric of success: goals. There is a lot more to the position, especially in today’s game, but a player who consistently puts the ball in the net may make up for a lot of other flaws.
Furthermore, getting to the front of the line may not be an easy task.Pefok, Josh Sargent, and Daryl Dike have all struggled to establish themselves as the USMNT’s first-choice defender. Despite their contributions to the USA’s success in 2021, they haven’t consistently created goals or maintained possession, sometimes because to their own faults and other times due to a lack of help from teammates. In 2021, they have a total of three goals for the USMNT.
Since Jozy Altidore held the position from 2009 until 2017, when the squad failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the USMNT has not had an apparent pick at this position. Prior to Altidore (third all-time in goals with 42), there were regulars like Brian McBride (30 goals) and Eric Wynalda (fourth with 34 goals). But it’s worth noting that the players tied for the most goals in a career, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey (57), were flexible players who played in both the midfield and the forward line.
So when someone like Pepi puts in a performance like he did in Honduras, at the age of 18, and under immense pressure to help the USMNT recover from a qualifying disaster in its first three matches, he is bound to become a fan favorite.
Coach Gregg Berhalter remarked after the game, “I thought he did a tremendous job.” “He worked tirelessly, competed against a physical set of center backs, scored a fantastic goal, and had a strong performance overall, in my opinion. What he accomplished as an 18-year-old was quite remarkable.”
The crucial question is: Given that no single player is expected to start all three games in October, when is the optimal time for the United States to employ its best forward option? Which team is a strong contender for a qualifying spot on the road in Panama (Oct. 10)? Or at home against Jamaica (Oct. 7), a struggling team against which the United States cannot afford to lose points?
The candidates in order of preference:
1. Ricardo Pepi
Club: FC Dallas (Major League Soccer)
USMNT caps: 1
USMNT goals: 1
In the Honduras encounter, Pepi displayed a versatility that has been lacking in other players. He dropped deep to assist in winning the ball beyond midfield, passing it to Christian Pulisic, and then sprinting to make himself available for the deflected cross that led to Antonee Robinson’s goal.
He leapt above a defender for a point-blank header from DeAndre Yedlin’s right-back cross. For the game’s third goal, he unselfishly fed Aaronson a square ball. Perhaps starting Pepi against Jamaica to help him develop confidence, then decide how to employ him in the second and third games based on his performance, is a good idea.
2. Jordan Pefok
Club: BSC Young Boys (Swiss Super League)
USMNT caps: 8
USMNT goals: 1
Pefok is a relatively new player in the United States, having caught the attention of the coaching staff with a breakout season at Young Boys in Switzerland, when he scored 12 goals in 32 games. He has seven goals in 12 games this season, including the goal against Manchester United, in all competitions. Pefok put up a solid sub performance against El Salvador in a 0-0 draw, but he didn’t have the same impact as a starter in a 1-1 draw versus Canada at home. He might be best suited as a game-changing sub.
3. Josh Sargent
Club: Norwich City (English Premier League)
USMNT caps: 19
USMNT goals: 5
Sargent made his debut for Norwich in August, playing on the right side of a front three against Liverpool, and he scored his first two goals in England in an EFL Cup game before the month was through.
However, he has struggled to adapt his club play to the national squad this year. All of his international goals came in 2018 and 2019, and he hasn’t been very good at linking possession. There is far too much potential for anyone to become impatient, and he may be more suited to playing on the outside of a front three (on the right in his instance), which means he could play with any of the others.
4. Daryl Dike
Club: Orlando City (Major League Soccer)
USMNT caps: 8
USMNT goals: 3
After being loaned to Barnsley in England’s Championship, Dike became a sensation with his ability. As Barnsley came close to promotion to the Premier League, he scored nine goals in 19 games. He was expected to be traded or loaned out again, but he has returned to Orlando City and has a goal and an assist in his first three starts since returning from an injury layoff after a multi-week spell with the Gold Cup champions.
His game still has a lot of room for improvement, yet he has more promise than any of these players except Pepi. Unless he goes on a tear in MLS over the next month, it’s hard to see him receiving minutes over the other three.