America’s next top striker: who will be Berhalter’s first choice in Qatar?

By this time next year, the 2022 World Cup will have come and gone. Soccer’s great and good will have descended on Qatar for the most controversial tournament in the sport’s history, and they’ll have left again. New world champions will have been crowned. Whether or not the US men’s national team will have participated, though, is still unknown.

As things stand, Gregg Berhalter’s team stand a good chance of being in Qatar. The USA occupy second place in the final round of qualifying – Concacaf’s first ever ‘octagonal’ – with more than half the fixtures played. The ghosts of 2018 World Cup qualifying still haunt American soccer, nobody is taking anything for granted, but it would be a shock if, from this position of strength, the USA didn’t make the 2022 tournament.

Berhalter has systematically found solutions in most areas of the pitch since his appointment as head coach three years ago. His midfield is now a well-established unit with the USA’s defense in better shape than it was a year ago. Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Timothy Weah and Brenden Aaronson also give the squad real quality in the attacking midfield and wide positions.

Up front, though, there is still a position to be earned. Berhalter has options, but none to build around this far out from the World Cup at the end of the year. Some countries are lucky enough to have a world class number nine to elevate their level – see Robert Lewandowski for Poland and Harry Kane for England – but the US don’t have that. Not yet, anyway.

In the eyes of many, Ricardo Pepi could potentially be that figure. The 18-year-old striker has only just completed a $20m move to Augsburg where he is expected to be a first-team player in the Bundesliga. Succeed in Germany and Pepi will surely be Berhalter’s first pick to play as his number nine at the World Cup (assuming the USA qualify).

2021 was a breakthrough year for Pepi at international level with the teenager called into Berhalter’s squad for the first time in August. He scored his first USA goal on his debut against Honduras in World Cup qualifying the following month and backed it up with a brace in a win over Jamaica the month after that.

Pepi is a penalty box poacher. Flanked by top quality wide man, the teenager will get goalscoring opportunities for the USA. Pepi is also capable of creating chances for himself on the dribble. Anticipation and technical ability on the ball make the former FC Dallas youngster a good fit for Berhalter’s system and general approach.

“We’re all excited,” Berhalter said when asked to describe Pepi’s potential. “For us, we’re just sitting there and we’re on the train. He’s an 18-year-old who gets an opportunity, takes advantage. What you see and I think what I really like is that he has this instinct, and it’s really hard to teach that to players.”

Daryl Dike is another young American forward who could feasibly play a big role for the USA at the 2022 World Cup with the 21-year-old also making the move to a new club this month, joining West Brom in a reported $9.5m deal from Orlando City. Dike already has English Championship experience having flourished in a loan spell at Barnsley last season and has been signed to spearhead the Baggies’ promotion challenge.

On talent alone, there might not be much between Dike and Pepi, but Berhalter’s system favors the latter. Indeed, the USA might not need a battering ram like Dike to lead the line in Qatar, although a good 2022 at club level for West Brom would surely see him included in the World Cup squad as a depth option at the very least.

Daryl Dike
Daryl Dike has scored three goals in eight appearances for the USMNT. Photograph: Bill Barrett/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Josh Sargent stands a good chance of being included in Berhalter’s 23-man squad, although the 21-year-old’s underwhelming form for Norwich City has called into question his role for the USA. In contrast, Jordan Pefok has scored an impressive 16 goals in 30 games, including five in European competition (and one against Manchester United), for Young Boys this season, ensuring that the 25-year-old will be mentioned in any discussion over who should start up front at the World Cup.

A flurry of goals by Matthew Hoppe for Schalke in the final stages of last season thrust another young American forward into focus only for the Barca Residency Academy graduate to fade into obscurity at Real Mallorca, where he has started just one league match since joining in the summer. Meanwhile, Gyasi Zardes, a relative veteran at 30 years old, remains a reliable option and a favourite of Berhalter’s.

The prospect of playing Pulisic as a ‘false nine’ has even been raised, particularly after being used in this position by Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel. Pulisic, of course, is a winger by trade. That he is even been mentioned as a potential number nine with the 2022 World Cup on the horizon highlights how the USA still have to settle on a frontman.

With the 2022 World Cup being a winter tournament, there is still time for the aforementioned contenders to secure their place in Berhalter’s plans, but the transfer activity that has involved the likes of Pepi, Dike and Sargent in the last six months proves the race to be the USA’s starting number nine in Qatar has already started.


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