USA striker competition: Why Berhalter took Pepi, Sargent over Pefok, Vazquez
The No. 9 role was a constant talking point throughout the US men’s national team’s World Cup qualifying campaign, and so it remained on Wednesday as Gregg Berhalter released his 26-man roster for the program’s final tuneup before the journey to Qatar 2022 in November.
“The striker position, I know everyone’s interested in that,” deadpanned the coach early in his media availability after the list dropped.
Josh Sargent’s goalscoring tear in the English Championship was rewarded, while Jordan Pefok’s in the German Bundesliga and Haji Wright’s in the Turkish Süper Lig were not. Berhalter kept the faith in Ricardo Pepi despite his mostly miserable run at FC Augsburg, at the expense of Brandon Vazquez’s explosive 2022 rise with FC Cincinnati. And Jesus Ferreira looks to have pole position for the starting job via his sustained productivity for club and country.
It all suggests a weighting of familiarity over newer contenders, and a dogged emphasis on Berhalter’s preferred profile for the lone striker position in his 4-3-3 formation.
“I think we’ve been consistent in saying it may not be the best forward that is in the group, [so much] as a guy that fits what we’re doing the best,” he said.
Here’s a rundown of the factors in play.
Familiar, and in form
With 18g/5a for FC Dallas, Ferreira is the highest-scoring domestic player in MLS this season and he also leads the USMNT with five goals in 2022. Add in his well-rounded toolkit and you have a leading option to lead the line in Qatar.
“I think you’ve watched enough of our games to see how the striker’s being used. It’s no secret,” Berhalter told reporters on Wednesday. “We use them in a number of different ways. One of them is to drop in and help us, give us an extra man in midfield. One of the ways is to run behind the back line. And then arriving in the penalty box, making good runs inside the penalty box. And then finally, starting our defensive pressure; we want to be a high-pressing team. We need forwards that understand the press, know how to use triggers to initiate the press and then actually execute the press well.
“When you look at a guy like Jesus, he checks all those boxes, in terms of what his skill set is,” he continued. “That’s how we’ve been evaluating a lot of these guys and I think that it’s a complicated position. But there are guys out there, even not in this camp, that we believe can get the job done and we’ve said that all along, that we believe we have forwards that can do the job.”
Sargent, too, offers many of the above assets and was centrally involved at the start of the cycle. Though he dropped off the squad while toiling, usually out of position, for a relegation-doomed Norwich side in the English Premier League, the Canaries’ drop to the second tier has provided much more optimal conditions for the St. Louis native to show himself: 6g/1a in nine games.
“Josh Sargent is another player that has been a great form after scoring a number of goals for Norwich, and his team is close to the top or top of the Championship, which is great,” said Berhalter.
“Started in some really big games for us, played in qualifying, played in the [Concacaf] Nations League semifinal, final, has also been around for a while.”
Scoring in high-level environments, but a less perfect fit
Both Pefok and Wright have gotten USMNT looks over the past two years, and even scored a couple of goals, and are racking up solid numbers for Union Berlin (Germany) and Antalyaspor (Turkey), respectively. Both got shoutouts from Berhalter, yet he doesn’t seem to have seen enough from them with his team, with the two perceived to bring less to the table in terms of link-up play and pressing.
“With Jordan Pefok, who’s had a great start to the Bundesliga, his team’s top of the table, together with [his Union strike partner] Sheraldo Becker, him and Sheraldo have been tearing defenses up, that’s good to see. And then Haji Wright in Turkey, scoring in the beginning of the season,” said the coach.
“We’re pretty confident we know what Jordan can do,” he added later. “It’s been fun watching him play, he’s off to a great start in the Bundesliga. And we opted for someone else in this camp. And that’s our decision … We didn’t feel like we needed to see him in this camp to determine whether he could be on the roster.”
Promising, ascendant, but too new
A US youth international for most of his teenage years, Vazquez, 23, struggled for playing time early in his club career but has burst into the limelight with 16g/5a for one of MLS’s most improved sides this season.
With his size, range and technique he would seem to check many of Berhalter’s boxes, yet the coach framed his continued absence as mostly a matter of timing.
“We think he’s done well. And for us, it’s comparing him to what we have, comparing him to other guys, and then the body of work both with his club and with us,” Berhalter said of Vazquez. “With us, it’s very difficult for him – he doesn’t have a body of work
“I feel bad for Brandon, I talked to him and I told him, it’s not the end, and to continue to do what he’s doing and keep himself in the conversation. That’s all he can do.”
Loyalty, service, upside
If there’s a quality that many coaches are happiest to embody to a fault, it’s loyalty. Berhalter clearly holds plenty of it towards Pepi. The FCD product hoisted the USMNT out of dangerous doldrums in the first few windows of their Concacaf Octagonal slate, earning a record-breaking transfer to Augsburg but subsequently struggling to settle in Germany.
He recently moved to Eredivisie club Groningen on a season-long loan and the national team staff wants him to seize this final opportunity to earn his place in Qatar.
“Keep in mind this is a guy that scored three goals for us in World Cup qualifying, right, and has had a tough time since then,” said Berhalter. “We’re trying to get him confidence. We’re trying to get him into the group and see if he can make a push for the final roster. That’s TBD right now. I watched his game this weekend in Groningen, or in Cambuur, actually, and you can see that he can be dominant in the Dutch league. And now it’s a question of if he actually is, and can he really take his game to the next level?
“Pepi has also had some good history with us. He started really important games, and we just weren’t willing to give all that up right now with Pepi. We still think there’s a big upside with him. We still think he’s got really good potential.”
In the bigger picture, the coach also stressed repeatedly that presence or absence in this September squad does not determine a player’s status for the World Cup list. With so much difficulty in getting consistent production from the No. 9 spot in qualifying, that may go for strikers more than any area on the team.
“It’s important to keep in mind that this is not the final roster. It’s not the final roster for the World Cup. A lot can happen between now and November 9, is when we’re announcing the final roster,” said Berhalter. “The actual date for FIFA is November 14, and a lot can happen between the 9th and the 14th. So just keep that in mind. That was the conversation I had with the players not selected in this camp, is that a lot can happen.”