As challenging as 2022 was for a number of US men’s national team players, Daryl Dike may have had the toughest year of the bunch.
The euphoria of a January transfer from Orlando City SC to West Bromwich Albion – worth some $9.5 million up front and plenty more in future sell-on fees – crashed hard into a brutal litany of injuries that limited the big striker to just four appearances during his first 10 months with the English Championship club.
That lengthy time off the pitch turned him from a rising USMNT No. 9 contender to an afterthought in a World Cup year. Dike called the experience “the most difficult time of my life” when he finally regained full fitness in November – and immediately performed with an urgency that showed it.
The combination of manager Carlos Corberán’s arrival in late October and Dike’s availability a few weeks later has been afterburner fuel for the Baggies, who are 8W-2L-0D since Corberán took over and 7W-1L-0D since Dike’s return, which has featured two goals, an assist and plenty of the rugged hold-up play he’s known for.
Suffice it to say that heads on both sides of the Atlantic are turning.
“What he's doing right now is so commendable. It's so fun to watch,” three-time USMNT World Cup striker and SiriusXM pundit Eric Wynalda told MLSsoccer.com this week. “That diving header the other day, to me, that's just a striker’s goal. It's a guy with a knack of where to be at the right time – can't teach that. You can only screw it up, to be honest.”
Dike’s physical presence has clearly lifted both teammates and fans alike. WBA surge into the new year as one of England’s hottest teams, skyrocketing from last place in the 24-team Championship to ninth.
In fact, FiveThirtyEight's latest probability models give the Baggies – who won just one of their first 13 league games – a 42% chance of qualifying for the promotion playoffs. And a 19% likelihood of making it all the way back to the mighty Premier League, from whence they were relegated in 2021 and are hungry to return.
Built for the English stage
Dike’s large frame and formidable physicality serve him well in the English second tier’s rough and tumble, though there’s more to it than just muscle.
“What I love about his game is, it still has the ability to evolve, especially with his back to goal,” said striker turned television personality Taylor Twellman. “His feet are softer than people think, than he's given credit for. The instincts in and around the goal, I think playing in the Championship, all of those things are things that, even for the Josh Sargents of the world, that league is about survival, hunger and just wanting it more than others when it comes to in and around the box. And I think that enhances any natural goalscoring instincts that may be there in a player.”
Despite his limited time in West Brom’s kit, Dike is not a stranger to that environment. He fueled Barnsley’s dramatic climb from mid-table to promotion playoffs with nine goals in 19 matches on a highly successful six-month loan stint from Orlando in 2021.
“The Championship, I think it suits him well. Physical, direct league, plays to his strength. He's still going to refine a lot of what it means to be consistent, an out-and-out goalscorer. But the intangibles are there – it's ridiculous,” said ESPN’s Hérculez Gómez, who earned 24 caps and played in three of the USMNT’s four 2010 World Cup matches during his own distinguished career as a striker.
“Not just size, not just the ability to find the space, but then take those chances – and chances that some would probably think are beyond his technical ability, but he's proven to have that. So he's finding a nice little groove, he’s finding this form, and it's the right time,” added Gomez. “He's got a lot of competition, but he's unique to the rest.”
A one-of-a-kind No. 9
The former Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders FC frontrunner is referring to Dike’s counterparts Josh Sargent, Haji Wright and Ricardo Pepi, who’ve been consistently productive this European season – but also the likes of Jesús Ferreira, Jordan Pefok and even uncapped contenders for the No. 9 role like Brandon Vázquez.
Charlie Davies has been following Dike longer than most of the soccer media, and he too sees the Oklahoman as distinct from the rest.
“I have loved to see his progression. I was covering him while he was playing at Virginia, when I was calling his games on ACC Network,” said Davies, a prolific scorer in MLS and Europe who’s now an analyst for MLSsoccer.com, CBS Sports and other outlets.
“It was a player with a lot of potential and clearly, physically gifted. But it seemed to me that he wasn't very efficient in front of goal. Wasted a lot of chances, wasn't accurate with his shooting, seemed like he needed to work on his technique, finishing … The runs he was making were pretty effective, but then you were left wanting more with the final product.”
From NCAA star and Generation adidas signing to MLS, then on to the Championship – first in a frantic high-pressing style at Barnsley and now under a Marcelo Bielsa acolyte in Corberán – Dike’s club career to date has been a series of quick climbs to higher levels where he’s generally been challenged, then rapidly come to grips and flourished.
“He can be a top player in our player pool for hold-up play, for making runs in the box, smart runs. I think he’s made really intelligent movements in the box, which shows me that yes, you can have success at the top level,” said Davies.
“And then his finishing has gotten better: technique with the shots, mixing it up, from power to placement. His near-post runs, his latest goal with the diving header. I mean, that's just a clear indication of his timing, the arrival in the box in the right place, right time, and then the actual heading of the ball from that position.”
Unfinished USMNT business
His brief USMNT career has had fits and starts. Dike earned eight caps in the first seven months of the program’s busy 2021, scoring his first international goal in a pre-Gold Cup friendly vs. Costa Rica then bagging a brace in a 6-1 rout of Martinique in the tournament’s group stage. But in the latter stages of the Gold Cup, he showed the physical strain of nearly a year and a half of play with little rest and hasn’t played for the Yanks since their semifinal win over Qatar.
At the time, questions lingered as to how Dike can perform against top-caliber opposition. There's also whether Gregg Berhalter – whose tenure as USMNT head coach ended Dec. 31 and may not continue into the 2026 World Cup cycle – even rates him, in light of the multifold contributions he seeks from the No. 9 in his game model.
Everyone on our panel of USMNT strike legends believes that needs to change at some point – regardless of any remaining rough edges, or doubts about Dike’s ability to build understanding with attacking colleagues like Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah.
“Our best player in the last World Cup was Tim Ream, and he hadn’t been with the team for a year. So what the hell are we talking about?” said Wynalda, who thinks Dike deserved more consideration for Qatar ‘22 even though he only regained fitness a few weeks beforehand.
“I mean, it's just one of those weird things to me. When you're the manager of a World Cup team, your job is to put the best players on the field. It’s not really about systems. It's about your opponent, it's about matchups. This guy [Dike] is going be a handful for anybody – anybody. Even if he wasn't all the way there, he's still an unbelievable option off the bench.”
Even teams like the USMNT that want to impose their tempo and break down opponents with the ball can use an alternative in certain situations. After defeating the US in the World Cup’s Round of 16, the Netherlands came back from 2-0 down to push eventual champions Argentina right to the brink of elimination with some direct play via substitute target men Wout Weghorst and Luuk de Jong in their riveting quarterfinal encounter.
“The ability to have a plan B is very important,” said Gomez. “Maybe Daryl Dike isn’t your plan A. Maybe he's not the guy you bank on. But he's definitely at this point, I think, a very useful player, a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ player right now, that I think any setup in the world needs.
“The best teams in the world have a plan B, they have different ways of playing. Different ways of playing require different players,” Gomez continued. “There is no ‘this player doesn't fit the system,’ in my eyes. It's, ‘alright, how can the coach get the best out of these players?’”
Dike’s first opportunity to get back into the national team fold will arrive in the March international window, when the Yanks face Grenada and El Salvador in Concacaf Nations League group play. If he and his West Brom teammates are still on anything like their current pace, whoever is in charge of the USMNT at that point will be hard-pressed to leave Dike out of the squad.
“He 100% percent is on the radar, from what I take,” said Twellman. “I think the [thigh] injury was bad timing just in the sense of, take the World Cup out of the equation. Anytime a player makes the jump from one league to another, you don't want to have an injury like that. Especially when he stepped foot in that country and just lit it on fire [with Barnsley].
“Naturally all of us want a [US] center forward to start and score goals for Chelsea, week in and week out, I get that. But I think with the quality of players that the United States have right now, you give me a ruthless player in and around the box, and someone that's just willing to put his body on the line to score goals? That may be all this team needs to hit its stride.”