It was an unmistakable sort of goal – a header from just outside the six-yard box, neatly looked down into the far corner. More notable than the finish was the identity of the scorer and what it could mean for the US men’s national team as they play their last two games ahead of the Qatar World Cup, starting with a friendly against Japan on Friday.
Ricardo Pepi was named MLS Young Player of the Year in 2021 after scoring 13 times for FC Dallas. US head coach Greg Berhalter had reason to be grateful for the teenager’s deadly form last September when Pepi scored on his international debut and provided two assists as the Americans beat Honduras 4-1 at San Pedro Sula. Recovered from a -0 deficit.
It was America’s third game in CONCACAF qualifying. They only drew the first two and Berhalter’s job security would have been the subject of intense scrutiny if they had lost to the weakest team in the group. Instead, the Americas defeated Jamaica 2â0 in October, and the Texans cemented their position as a rising star by catching both goals in Austin.
When Pepi jogged to the corner flag to draw praise from the crowd and his teammates after reducing a cross in the net in the 62nd minute, no one would have thought he would not celebrate again for almost a year.
Pepi’s goal for FC Groningen against Sparta Rotterdam last Saturday ended a 30-match, 345-day scoreless streak for the striker. He joined Augsburg in January for a $20m-plus transfer fee, but the drought continued and the Bundesliga side sent him to the Eredivisie on a season-long loan last month.
The 19-year-old slipped from compulsory to optional – he hasn’t played for the US since March – but Berhalter picked him up ahead of Friday’s match against Japan in DÃ¼sseldorf and a Groningen goal for Tuesday’s game with Saudi Arabia in Murcia. called into the team. , citing the striker’s desire to boost his confidence.
It should come as no surprise that Berhalter feels a sense of loyalty to a player who was instrumental in qualifying. His inclusion despite the barren race is also a reflection of the lack of proven high-calibre options at the centre-forward, one of the biggest question marks in the line-up as Qatar looms. FC Dallas’ Jesus Ferreira is the top favorite to start when it matters. This year the 21-year-old has shown that he is a prolific scorer who delivers more in the build-up than Pepi.
Josh Sargent is also in contention after a strong start to the season with Norwich City following a disappointing 2021â22 finish, although Berhalter will have to parse the extent that the 22-year-old’s outperformance results in lower-quality opponents . Norwich’s relegation from the Premier League.
Since Jordan Payfolk is in scoring form in the Bundesliga with Union Berlin, his omissions from the roster indicate that his World Cup prospects are distant, although Berhalter was keen to tell reporters that “between now and 9 November” A lot can happen”. That is the date the US plans to unveil the final roster 12 days before the start against Wales. America also faces England and Iran in Group B.
It is not just the usual defense and caution on the part of a coach who wants to keep all his options open, but an acknowledgment that this player pool, though young, has been frequently hampered by health issues during his tenure. “A lot can happen between the 9th and the date” [Fifa deadline of the] 14th,” said Berhalter, a note that sounded more realistic than pessimistic, given America’s injury history and the uncertainties of an unprecedented Winter World Cup.
Forward Tim Weah, midfielder Younis Musah and left-back Antoine Robinson, who are certain to travel to Qatar when they are fit, are injured and missing from the current squad. Goalkeeper Jack Stephen was also ruled out with an injury but played for Middlesbrough last Saturday.
Berhalter will have to choose between Stefan, who has had some shaky moments this year but is playing regularly, albeit in the English second division, or Matt Turner, a more solid performer, who plays back-and-forth for Arsenal. is up and has only made one appearance this season.
Another problem position is center back, but the next two games may not provide clarity as to who will partner with Nashville’s Walker Zimmerman in Qatar, as the two leading contenders, Cameron Carter-Vickers (Celtic) and Chris Richards (Crystal). Palace). It’s not like it has opened the door for Benfica’s John Brooks or Fulham’s Tim Ream – legends who are too slow for a coach who is shaping his team to be young and dynamic.
So two months before the start of the World Cup, America’s closing exercise may be useful primarily for strength tests, tactical rehearsals against two other qualified nations, and establishing whether to fill reserves on the roster rather than give Berhalter an opportunity. Who is likely. To confirm the last three or four names on your definitive favorite starting XI.
The next 180 minutes can at least give the coach a clear idea whether he prefers Gio Reyna or Brendan Aronson to attack midfielders/wingers. The most interesting question, however, is whether Pepi is about to enjoy a fully timely renaissance. There is only a small sample size for a player early in his career, but he used to score in groups last year. If his long-awaited goal last weekend proves to be the first of many – or at least, a few – then there could be a very welcome selection dilemma ahead of Berhalter.