Voices: Joseph Lowery

USMNT's striker problem: Who are the best post-World Cup options?

USMNT 9 issue

“I’ll give up to half my kingdom for a No. 9.” – Gregg Berhalter (probably)

The US men’s national team’s 2022 FIFA World Cup run is over, but their search for a productive striker is very much not. Haji Wright was the only US striker who scored a goal across their four games in Qatar – and the goal was, uh, definitely 100% unintentional.

This is a problem:

We’ve still got three-and-a-half years until the next men’s World Cup (North America 2026) arrives, so there is time for the USMNT to find a quality No. 9 option.

But the Gold Cup and the Concacaf Nations League are coming up next year, and top-end friendlies and additional tournaments are a must since hosts have traditionally auto-qualified for the World Cup. The US will have to give looks to someone up top; it’s a must-have at the elite international level, to challenge for a deep tournament run.

Who should that someone be? Let’s run through the USMNT’s No. 9 options and the cases for each of them.

  • Why he should be the guy: He’s the most well-rounded No. 9 in the player pool
  • Club: Norwich City (Championship)

Connecting play, pressing, winning balls in the air, getting involved in the scrap, crashing the box. Sargent can pretty much do it all. 

He was the USMNT’s most promising No. 9 at the World Cup, with an ankle injury (regrettably) keeping him out of their Round of 16 loss vs. the Netherlands. That’s especially notable when you factor in how this World Cup is one of the only times the USMNT have been mostly healthy. 

If Sargent works with the team’s midfield and wide attacking stars, that should count for something.

  • Why he should be the guy: He’s the promised one
  • Club: FC Groningen (Eredivisie)

At 19 years old, Pepi is younger than any other player on this list. That means a couple of things. 

First, it means he’s still very much growing into his frame and needs reps at the professional level. He’s finally getting some of those while on loan in the Eredivisie (from Bundesliga side Augsburg), which is a good thing even if he hasn’t transformed into an entirely different or better player since arriving in the Netherlands. 

Second, it means Pepi is going to develop right in front of our eyes. The FC Dallas product is someone you want to be involved in national team camps and getting minutes with his senior team peers. He was a roster snub for the World Cup, but his promise is undeniable.

  • Why he should be the guy: He finds space – and he creates it
  • Club: FC Cincinnati (MLS)

Vazquez is an excellent off-ball runner. He sees space inside the 18-yard box and moves into that space better than maybe any other striker option in the United States’ player pool.

And let’s not forget: knowing when and how to move into good spots in the box is the most important skill a striker can have.

Vazquez doesn’t just exploit space himself, though. He also has the frame to hold off an opposing center back and create space underneath for his teammates. At 6-foot-2, he’s a strong and savvy option up top.

The 24-year-old is coming off a breakout season for FC Cincinnati, posting 18g/8a. He’s not featured in a USMNT camp and is eligible for Mexico as well.

  • Why he should be the guy: He attacks crosses
  • Club: Union Berlin (Bundesliga)

The USMNT like to cross the ball. They crossed it more (and more often) than pretty much anybody else at the World Cup before their exit in the knockout rounds. 

But what, I ask you, is the fun of crossing the ball so much if you don’t have a player like Pefok to rise and head the ball into the back of the net?

Pefok can bring others into the game, but his aerial ability is undoubtedly his finest quality. Maybe the US could use some of that in 2023, whether they’re playing under Berhalter or a new coach. He was another snub for the 2022 World Cup roster.

  • Why he should be the guy: He helps you get in behind
  • Club: Antalyaspor (Turkey)

Haji Wright is a big guy – he’s 6-foot-3 – but his best skill is spinning off an opposing center back and running into space behind the backline. Off-ball runners come in all shapes and sizes!

Wright brings a lot of value in games where his team is playing against a high-pressing opponent with a high backline. He also brings value in games where his team is defending deeper and wants to run into the depth in transition. The US will play plenty of games that fall into one of those two categories over the next few years.

  • Why he should be the guy: He overloads the midfield – and presses
  • Club: FC Dallas (MLS)

If you want to sneak an extra attacking midfielder on the field, Jesús Ferreira is your guy. He’s not going to win balls in the air and he’s not going to help you in the scrap, but he can drop in, combine and help relieve pressure (at least against teams that don’t wear bright Oranje).

We’ve seen Ferreira influence possession play at both the club and international levels – and we’ve also seen him bring the heat with his defensive pressure. With that combination, Ferreira is a unique striker option in the USMNT’s player pool. 

The 21-year-old was named the 2022 MLS Young Player of the Year and had 18g/6a in 33 games during FC Dallas’ playoff-return campaign.

Daryl Dike
Forward · USA
  • Why he should be the guy: Opposing center backs can’t handle him
  • Club: West Bromwich Albion (Championship)

How many times have we seen Daryl Dike absolutely obliterate an opposing center back before turning, running toward goal and tearing the cover off the ball with a shot? Many times. The answer is many times, especially during his Orlando City SC days. 

Dike’s biggest problem is he hasn’t stayed healthy. He needs reps to refine his game, so it’s crucial that he starts to find his way over in England. Still, the allure of those highlight-reel moments makes him an intriguing forward.

  • Why he should be the guy: He can do a bit of everything
  • Club: San Jose Earthquakes

Jeremy Ebobisse moves well off the ball, he can handle having the ball at his feet and he can win the ball in the air. He checks pretty much all of the boxes that you want a No. 9 to check. Though he never got a look up top under Gregg Berhalter in this last World Cup cycle, that could change leading up to 2026.

With ex-USMNT assistant Luchi Gonzalez heading up a new era in San Jose, Ebobisse could benefit from clear and effective tactical ideas in 2023. He could also be surrounded by better talent, which may help elevate his game.

Ebobisse had 17g/3a for San Jose last season, putting himself in the Golden Boot presented by Audi race.

Folarin Balogun
  • Why he should be the guy: He takes charge up top
  • Club: Reims (Ligue 1)

He may only be 21, but Folarin Balogun asserts himself. Playing on loan from Arsenal, Balogun has eight goals so far in 2022 in just over 1,000 minutes. His underlying numbers look solid and he’s an aggressive presser and off-ball runner.

The trick with Balogun, having grown up in London, is he has his sights set on the English national team setup. He has already represented England at several different youth national team levels. Still, Balogun was born in New York and he’s apparently open to representing the United States. 

“Just like my future at club level, I am not closing any doors regarding international selection,” Balogun told L’Equipe. “All options remain open. Above everything, I feel English, but I also have an American side, because I have family in New York and I love going there.”

If Balogun decides to play for the USMNT, expect to see him get a real shot as the team’s No. 9. He’s talented and would elevate the position.