MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

State of USMNT No. 9 options: Who could Gregg Berhalter select for World Cup qualifiers?

The US men's national team's starting center forward role has been a constant narrative throughout World Cup qualifying. Honestly, perhaps dating back to when Jozy Altidore was the unquestioned starter at the position.

Several options have emerged over the last couple of years, but none have won the job outright, culminating with a different starter up top in each game of the Octagonal winter slate. That's normal with fixture congestion and compressed windows, but it’s still a wide-open race and there's intrigue around who will or won’t be called in for the last swing at Mexico (March 24), home to Panama (March 27) and at Costa Rica (March 30).

There are six players realistically within a shout to lay claim on that starting spot, with Gregg Berhalter typically calling up three options during the WCQ process. And now a Qatar 2022 spot is on the line.

Matt Doyle also addressed this topic in his preview column. But here’s a deeper look at the No. 9 options and their current form before the official roster drops, likely later this week.

Ricardo Pepi's form? It’s not great.

He hasn’t scored yet with FC Augsburg after making a club-record move upwards of $20 million this winter, playing 266 minutes split across six matches. The German Bundesliga club has not won any of those six games.

The only two games he hasn’t appeared in since he signed are Augsburg’s only two wins since he signed, which is an unfortunate correlation.

The last club goal Pepi scored was with FC Dallas in September. The last international goal he scored was Oct. 7 against Jamaica. Since then, in 16 games with Dallas, the USMNT and Augsburg, he hasn’t scored.

Pepi just turned 19 two months ago and is adjusting to a relegation battle in one of the world’s most difficult leagues. These things happen. But with his burden of boy-wonder and grasp of the starting role early in qualifying, are expectations raised to an unfair bar for his age?

He’s had a knack for stepping up in big moments, though. Estadio Azteca, anyone?

Playing for former USMNT assistant coach Nico Estevez at FC Dallas, Jesus Ferreira has had a solid first three matches as a center forward in their USMNT-like 4-3-3 formation. But he's found no goals and just one of his seven shots have landed on target.

Forwards often get reduced to the binary question of if they scored or not, but Ferreira has created seven chances from open play (two off the MLS lead) and has accrued 1.11 xG and 0.86 xA from open play.

Like Pepi, Ferreira hasn’t scored since October for club or country.

Unlike the first two players included here, Gyasi Zardes has indeed scored in recent times. But he hasn’t started any of the Columbus Crew's first three games this season. Miguel Berry has been preferred by Crew head coach Caleb Porter.

Zardes has played 64 minutes across those three matches, scoring once.

Last window, Zardes started one of three games for the USMNT, the 2-0 loss at Canada, while Ferreira and Pepi each started one as well.

Unlike every other forward on this list, Jordan Pefok is in solid domestic form, to the tune of 10 goals and three assists in his last nine league matches for BSC Young Boys in Switzerland. He scored two goals in six UEFA Champions League group stage appearances, too.

But Pefok hasn’t been involved with the national team since the first window, way back in September.

Will he get the call this window?

Josh Sargent has spent most of his season playing right wing for relegation-threatened Norwich City, meaning he’s been doing a lot of defending and selfless work out of his preferred No. 9 position.

Sargent has two goals in the English Premier League in 25 appearances (18 starts), both coming in a January match against Watford. He has started eight of Norwich’s last nine games, though.

Like Pefok, Sargent hasn’t been called up to the national team since the first WCQ window in September. He hasn’t scored for the national team since pre-pandemic, in a Nations League group stage match against Cuba in November 2019.

On Wednesday, Norwich announced Sargent was selected as a reserve for the upcoming qualifiers.

Daryl Dike
Forward · USA

Daryl Dike’s transfer to West Bromwich Albion from Orlando City SC hasn't exactly roared to a flying start, with the 21-year-old playing a grand total of 84 minutes before suffering a hamstring injury that has kept him out of action for two months now.

Furthermore, the English Championship side has since let go of manager Valerien Ismael, a key part of why Dike signed with the club. Ismael was Dike’s manager at Barnsley when he was on loan there last winter.

With the injury, Dike likely won’t be ready for USMNT selection.

Good news, though: Dike returned to first-team training last week. Manager Steve Bruce said he probably won’t return to West Brom's lineup until after the international break, which makes sense given they have one more game until then.