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Thursday, December 8, 2022

Why isn’t in-form Union Berlin striker Jordan Pefok in the USMNT squad?

When it comes to the US men’s national team, no position has been spoken about as frequently in the build-up to the 2022 World Cup as the number nine position. Indeed, the discussion around who will start for the USA in Qatar this winter has been intense. Most fans have an opinion, usually a strong one, on the centre forward pecking order.

Of course, the US has a number nine who is regularly scoring goals in one of Europe’s best leagues. In fact, Jordan Pefok scored the first goal in a 2-0 win for Union Berlin against Wolfsburg last weekend that put his team top of the Bundesliga. Yet there was no sign of Pefok in Gregg Berhalter’s USA roster this week.

Instead, Ricardo Pepi, who ended an 11-month goalless streak for club and country last weekend, has been called up. There’s also a place for Josh Sargent, who until recently wasn’t on the USMNT radar. Jesus Ferreira, who most expect to be Berhalter’s starting number nine at the World Cup, was the third inclusion.

Pefok has registered five combined goals and assists for Union Berlin in the Bundesliga this season. This comes on the back of a season which saw him finish as the top scorer in the Swiss Super League. Not so long ago, fans bemoaned the lack of a consistent American goalscorer. It could now be strongly argued Pefok is that figure.

Berhalter wants more than just goals from the frontman in his USMNT system, though. His 4-2-3-1 formation demands a lot of the number nine. That player is asked to drop deep, link up play and get on the end of goal-scoring chances. In Berhalter’s eyes, Pefok can’t perform these duties as well as someone like Ferreira.

“We’re pretty confident we know Jordan’s profile, we know what he can do,” Berhalter explained after Pefok’s omission from the USMNT roster. “And we didn’t feel like we needed to see him in this camp to determine whether he could be on the [World Cup] roster or not. The decisions aren’t easy decisions, and I understand that Jordan should be in consideration – he was. In the end we decided to go with these three strikers to evaluate them.”

Many found Berhalter’s remarks about Pefok’s place on the USMNT depth chart somewhat confusing. And after a 2-0 capitulation to Japan on Friday – in which the US squad mustered 0 shots on goal – the persistent questioning of the coach’s decisions has reached an even higher pitch.

Some suggested Berhalter’s comments should serve as encouragement to Pefok who might not have anything to prove. It could be the case that Berhalter is using this camp to test Pepi and Sargent for the third spot in the number nine pool.

Another reading is that Pefok is below Pepi and Sargent in the pecking order. Berhalter has a clear vision of what he wants the USMNT to be under his stewardship and he has cast aside any players that don’t fit that vision – see John Brooks as the primary example. It simply might not matter how many Bundesliga goals Pefok scores before the World Cup.

The US had good reason to feel confident ahead of travelling to Qatar this winter. This is a team with a lot of talent, perhaps more talent than any other USMNT group in the past. The midfield unit of Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah is settled and gives Berhalter something solid to build around, but recent injuries to McKennie and Musah could heavily impact the USMNT’s core.

Christian Pulisic might not have played much for Chelsea so far this season, but the 24-year-old is capable of delivering a match-defining moment while Gio Reyna is regaining fitness after a difficult 12 months with injury. However, a top level number nine would raise the overall quality of the USMNT at the World Cup.

Ferreira could give Berhalter everything he needs in Qatar. The 21-year-old has scored 18 times in 31 MLS appearances for FC Dallas this season, but is much more than just a penalty box finisher. It might not matter who fills out the USMNT’s number nine depth chart if Ferreira performs as well as he can.

If, however, Berhalter needs to tweak his system in response to a moment of adversity, as is common at a major tournament, he could miss not having an option like Pefok in his squad. Neither Ferreira nor the in-form Sargent were able to make an impact on Friday, and even a strong performance against what is expected to be a less-challenging Saudi Arabia side likely won’t be viewed as a defining moment for whoever becomes Berhalter’s first choice.

As he has demonstrated for Union Berlin this season, Pefok is capable of playing in a front two. He is excellent at making near post runs and has sharp instincts inside the box. Unfortunately, he might not get the opportunity to showcase this in Qatar.

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