Saturday, May 28, 2022

USMNT qualifiers: Ricardo Pepi drought may force Gregg Berhalter to use alternative striker options vs. Mexico

United States men’s national team striker Ricardo Pepi went from top young prospect in Major League Soccer with FC Dallas to struggling in Europe with Augsburg overnight. The American talent has been at the Bundesliga club now for a couple months, but he’s yet to settle in with the team battling for its top-flight lives.

The 19-year-old is in the midst of a five-month scoring drought, having not found the back of the net for his new club at all. His last goal came on Oct. 7 in World Cup qualifying for the United States. Frustration has to be bubbling, and understandably so, but in a position where confidence is key, it may just be time for USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter to consider alternative options in what could be the biggest match of the qualifying cycle at Estadio Azteca against Mexico on March 24 (10 p.m. ET | Paramount+). 

At a club that’s only three points ahead of the drop zone and barely averages a goal per game, chances are hard to come by for Pepi. Given that he was linked to some of the world’s biggest clubs, his move to Augsburg was questioned by some and accepted by others based on the amount of playing time he could get as a starter. No matter how you judge his winter transfer, It’s safe to say things have not worked out as planned just yet as he hasn’t managed to record three shots in a single game or surpass an xG of 0.22. 

The unnecessary need for him to track back coupled with the lack of creativity and service around him play a factor into his 13-game scoreless streak, which is an obvious cause for concern if you’re in Berhalter’s shoes looking to get the most out of his young and talented players in the final batch of make-or-break Concacaf qualifiers.

Here’s a look at his numbers: 

Oct. 10

Panama 23



Oct. 13

Costa Rica 87



Nov. 13

Mexico 82



Nov. 16

Jamaica 78



Dec. 19

Bosnia & Herzegovina 62



Jan. 8

Hoffenheim 30



Jan. 16

Eintracht Frankfurt 84



Jan. 22

Leverkusen 57



Jan. 30

Canada 21



Feb. 3

Honduras 76



Feb. 12

Borussia M’gladbach 27

Feb. 19

Freiburg 10



Feb. 27

Borussia Dortmund 59

As Berhalter finalizes his squad list with an announcement expected this week, he has to answer the following question: Do you go with your top striker prospect who isn’t playing well or with somebody else who is full of confidence and production as of late? To me, it’s clearly the latter, and there is only one name that makes sense: Jordan Pefok.

The D.C.-born 22-year-old is playing for Young Boys in Switzerland and is in sensational form. He scored during Sunday’s 2-2 draw to Luzern, and he’s been on a tear as of late. In the past eight games, he has scored nine goals, including four against Lugano on Dec. 19. He’s got 21 goal to his name on the season, including having scored in the Champions League against Manchester United. He is, without a doubt, the most in-form striker this team has and the top American striker in Europe right now in terms of production. 

Matthew Hoppe has played just four games at Mallorca since joining in the summer and he has yet to score. Gyasi Zardes has been passed by Miguel Berry with the Columbus Crew. Jordan Morris is healthy and just scored for the Seattle Sounders in the win over the Los Angeles Galaxy, but he’s a ways from being back to his usual self. Josh Sargent has had his ups and downs with Norwich City. And Jesus Ferreira hasn’t looked incredibly impressive for FC Dallas early with the MLS season having kicked off just a few weeks ago.

On Thursday, we will see the picks in attack for Berhalter when the squad in announced. But barring injury, not only should Pefok be in the squad, he should start at Estadio Azteca, having earned it with his performances week after week.

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USMNT schedule

Thursday, March 24 (Matchday 12)

Mexico vs. United States, 10 p.m. ET (Paramount+)

Sunday, March 27 (Matchday 13)

United States vs. Panama, 7 p.m. ET (FS1 and UniMas)

Wednesday, March 30 (Matchday 14)

Costa Rica vs. United States, 9 p.m. ET (Paramount+)

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