Photograph: Moises Castillo/AP
It was an unremarkable type of goal – a header from just outside the six-yard box, neatly glanced low into the far corner. More notable than the finish was the identity of the scorer and what it might mean for the US men’s national team as they play their last two games before the Qatar World Cup, starting with a friendly against Japan on Friday.
Ricardo Pepi was named the MLS Young Player of the Year after scoring 13 times for FC Dallas in 2021. US head coach Gregg Berhalter had reason to be grateful for the teenager’s lethal form last September when Pepi scored on his international debut and provided two assists as the Americans recovered from a 1-0 deficit to beat Honduras 4-1 in San Pedro Sula.
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That was the US’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 had they lost to the weakest team in the group. Instead, the US went on to beat Jamaica 2-0 in October and the Texan grabbed both goals in Austin to cement his status as an ascending star.
As Pepi jogged towards the corner flag to take the adulation of the crowd and his teammates after steering a cross low into the net in the 62nd minute, no one would have imagined that he would not celebrate again for nearly a year.
Pepi’s goal for FC Groningen against Sparta Rotterdam last Saturday ended an astonishing 30-match, 345-day scoreless streak for the striker. He joined Augsburg in January for a reported $20m-plus transfer fee but the drought continued and the Bundesliga side dispatched him to the Eredivisie last month on a season-long loan.
The 19-year-old slid from indispensable to optional – he hasn’t played for the US since March – but Berhalter called him into the squad for Friday’s match against Japan in Düsseldorf and Tuesday’s game with Saudi Arabia in Murcia even before the Groningen goal , citing a desire to increase the striker’s confidence.
It’s not surprising Berhalter feels a sense of loyalty towards a player who had an important role in qualifying. His inclusion of him despite the barren run is also a reflection of the lack of proven high-caliber options at center forward, which remains one of the biggest question marks in the line-up as Qatar looms. Jesús Ferreira of FC Dallas is the putative favorite to start when it matters. This year the 21-year-old has shown he is a prolific scorer who offers 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 dismal 2021-22, though Berhalter will have to parse the extent to which the 22-year-old’s improved performances are a result of lower-quality opponents after Norwich’s relegation from the Premier League.
Since Jordan Pefok is in scoring form in the Bundesliga with Union Berlin, his omission from the roster signals that his World Cup prospects are remote, though Berhalter was keen to stress to reporters that “a lot can happen between now and November 9”. That’s the date the US are planning to unveil the final roster, 12 days before they kick off against Wales. The US also faced England and Iran in Group B.
That’s not just the usual hedging and caution from a coach who wants to keep all his options open, but an acknowledgment that this player pool, though young, has frequently been disrupted by health issues during his tenure. “A lot can happen between the 9th and the [Fifa deadline of the] 14th,” Berhalter added, a note that sounded more realistic than pessimistic given the US’s injury history and the vagaries of an unprecedented winter World Cup.
Forward Tim Weah, midfielder Yunus Musah and left back Antonee Robinson, who are sure to be on the plane to Qatar if fit, are injured and missing from the current squad. Goalkeeper Zack Steffen was also left out because of injury but played for Middlesbrough last Saturday.
Berhalter will have to choose between Steffen, who’s had some shaky moments this year but is playing regularly, albeit in the English second tier, or Matt Turner, a more solid performer who’s a back-up for Arsenal 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’ll partner with Nashville’s Walker Zimmerman in Qatar, since two leading contenders, Cameron Carter-Vickers (Celtic) and Chris Richards (Crystal Palace) are also sidelined. Not that this has opened the door for Benfica’s John Brooks or Fulham’s Tim Ream – veterans who are too slow for a coach who’s shaping his team to be youthful and dynamic.
So with two months before the start of the World Cup, the US’s concluding warm-ups may be chiefly useful as strength tests against two other qualified nations, tactical rehearsals and establishing who’s likely to fill reserve spots on the roster rather than giving Berhalter the opportunity to confirm the last three or four names on his definitive preferred starting XI.
The next 180 minutes might at least give the coach a clearer idea of whether he prefers Gio Reyna or Brenden Aaronson as attacking midfielders/wingers. The most intriguing question of all, though, is whether Pepi is about to enjoy a perfectly-timed renaissance. There’s only a small sample size for a player at the start of his career, but he did tend to score in clusters last year. If his long-awaited goal last weekend proves the first of many – or at least, some – then Berhalter may have a very welcome selection dilemma ahead.