National Writer: Charles Boehm

Vazquez, Sargent & more: USMNT strikers heat up before World Cup


“Never put a period where God put a comma.”

It’s the time-honored advice of The Right Reverend Fredua Koranteng Adu, and a decent place to start this week’s US men's national team World Cup roundup, as Qatar-dreaming estadounidenses on both sides of the Atlantic approach the sliding doors that are the close of most European transfer windows and the MLS Roster Freeze Date as September gets underway.

Life moves fast around these parts, and players you write off today might be balling out of their minds tomorrow – and vice versa, of course.

So let’s jet up to the Stadium of Light first…

Josh Sargent: Fire emoji personified

The kid from St. Louis slotted home the lone goal in Norwich City’s 1-0 away win over Lynden Gooch’s Sunderland on Saturday, the capstone of a sharp and highly confident 90-minute outing. Sargent can’t stop scoring – and not only that, he’s doing lots of other important and impressive No. 9 things, like the two key passes, three fouls earned, five total clearances and three recoveries he offered here.

When Sargent disappeared from the national team for most of World Cup qualifying, Berhalter made pretty clear it was because he was usually playing out of position (on the wing) for a bad team, and thus neither scoring regularly nor showcasing the skill set he wants from the frontrunners in his system. Now Sargent is doing all those things at a high level – even if England's Championship is not the Premier League – so we’re thinking he’s got a very, very good shot at a September call-up.

But others are thriving – or not – too…

  • Brandon Vazquez (FC Cincinnati, MLS)
  • Haji Wright (Antalyaspor, Turkey's Super Lig)
  • Jordan Pefok (Union Berlin, German Bundesliga)
  • Ricardo Pepi (Augsburg, German Bundesliga)

Sargent certainly isn’t the only one in the mix for that still-wide-open striker competition.

Brandon Vazquez struck yet again for FC Cincinnati in their wild, 2-2 draw with Columbus in the latest Hell is Real Derby installment; he’s now on 16 goals this season, tied for second-most in MLS, with FC Dallas talisman Jesus Ferreira just behind him (15):

Haji Wright keeps playing – and scoring – in Turkey. The former LA Galaxy prospect bagged a brace in a losing cause as mid-table Antalyaspor fell 5-2 to surprise early Süper Lig frontrunners Gaziantep Friday, giving his side an early lead before it all fell apart after the break. Wright, who’s now on five goals this season, also completed 80% of his passes and tabbed five recoveries, though he lost possession five times as well.

Jordan Pefok continued his scintillating start to life in the Bundesliga, notching two assists in Union Berlin’s 6-1 road hammering of Schalke 04 (now there’s a boxscore that would’ve sounded like an absurd fever dream just a few years ago). And these weren’t garbage-time garnishes: The 26-year-old set up his strike partner Sheraldo Becker for the Iron Ones’ second and fourth goals:

Undefeated Union are tied with mighty Bayern on points at the top of the BuLi standings. Down near the other end, Ricardo Pepi earned his first start of the season for Augsburg, but was subbed out on 56 minutes as the Fuggerstädter lost 1-0 to Hoffenheim, and the FC Dallas product remains without a BuLi goal to his name. Ouch:

Injuries, recoveries etc.
  • Eryk Williamson (Portland Timbers, MLS)
  • Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls, MLS)
  • Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC, MLS)
  • Shaq Moore (Nashville SC, MLS)

Two of the most pivotal positions in Berhalter’s usual 4-3-3 formation are the twin No. 8s, the box-to-box center mids who are also expected to contribute to the attack with ball progression, late box runs and such. That spot hasn’t always been the deepest in the pool, and after MLS Week 27 we’re wondering whether Eryk Williamson might make a late run into contention for a roster spot.

The Portland Timbers mainstay has suffered another injury-disrupted club campaign, yet logged a full 90 for the first time in months as PTFC secured a massive 2-1 home win over their old enemies, Seattle Sounders FC, on Friday night. The D.C. United academy alum played two key passes, logged some important defensive actions and earned the, ah, let’s say extremely controversial penalty kick that helped decide the game, en route to the top goals-added number among US players in MLS this week, per American Soccer Analysis.

Weston McKennie is a mortal lock, Yunus Musah seems to be playing regularly in a central role for Valencia and other options like Brenden Aaronson exist. But Luca de la Torre hasn’t earned real minutes for his new club Celta de Vigo yet and the US outlook is quite hazy for the likes of Sebastian Lletget (Dallas) and Cristian Roldan (Seattle). Williamson might just nip in at the last second.

In somewhat related news, center back Aaron Long had to leave the New York Red Bulls3-1 win over Inter Miami CF with a heel injury that coach Gerhard Struber suggested will keep him out at least one game, while Nashville SC’s big 3-0 road win in Vancouver was delivered without Walker Zimmerman and Shaq Moore, both of whom were rested.

Whither Christian Pulisic?

Perspective can be an odd and elusive quality, as Freddy Adu might also remind us.

For example, if we were to hop in the time machine, rewind a few years and inform USMNT supporters that a 23-year-old from Hershey, Pennsylvania was logging minutes almost every week for one of the richest and most ambitious clubs on the planet, and in fact had even hoisted the UEFA Champions League trophy with said club, whose matches are eagerly consumed by millions of Americans and others around the world on television, most of them would be dazzled, giddy, elated.

But here in 2023, most of modern US fandom is fuming about the fact the nation’s most visible male player, the trailblazer and standard-bearer of his generation, is getting only modest minutes as a sub for Chelsea despite his lavish talent and longstanding relationship with manager Thomas Tuchel.

Pulisic played the final 15 minutes of the Blues’ 2-1 home win over Leicester City, with seven touches, 3/4 passes completed and 0/1 on dribble attempts. What’s occupied far more of the media coverage around him is whether he will leave the club, be it on loan or permanently, before the window shuts at the end of Thursday, in search of more substantial playing time.

Manchester United and Newcastle are among those to have registered their interest, yet the latest word is that he’ll stay after ‘clear the air’ talks with Tuchel et al. On Monday The Athletic's reliable David Ornstein reported Pulisic and fellow Blues reserve Conor Gallagher are “expected to stay at Chelsea, barring a bid for either player that is too good to refuse,” as Tuchel contemplates a congested schedule ahead with Champions League group play looming. We’ll see what happens, though we suspect Pulisic will be ready and raring to go in Qatar no matter what transpires.

  • Malik Tillman (Rangers, Scottish Premiership)
  • James Sands (Rangers, Scottish Premiership)
  • Cameron Carter-Vickers (Celtic, Scottish Premiership)
  • Sergino Dest (FC Barcelona, Spain's LaLiga)
  • Weston McKennie (Juventus, Italy's Serie A)
  • Gio Reyna (Dortmund, German Bundesliga)

Speaking of THE CHAMPIONS [cue everyone’s favorite theme song], Europe’s elitest-of-the-elite competition completed its qualifying rounds last week and held the draw for the group phase. It will include 10 US-eligible players in all, with at least one in all eight groups, though here we’re most focused on those with a realistic shot at making the plane to Qatar.

Yanks James Sands (on loan from NYCFC) and Malik Tillman were centrally involved as Rangers FC impressively navigated a tense qualifying playoff series with PSV Eindhoven, Tillman creating the sole (and series-deciding) goal of Wednesday’s second leg in the Netherlands while Sands logged an excellent 90 minutes at center back. Their reward? A daunting Group A assignment alongside Ajax, Liverpool and Napoli.

Rangers’ domestic rivals Celtic, anchored defensively by Cameron Carter-Vickers, are also in the mix here, with reigning champs Real Madrid, RB Leipzig and Shakhtar Donetsk in Group F. Borussia Dortmund and Gio Reyna – who was rested over the weekend as a precautionary measure as his injury-prone legs are handled with care – have been drawn with Manchester City, Sevilla and FC Copenhagen in Group G.

Elsewhere, Sergiño Dest’s FC Barcelona will face Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and Czech champions Viktoria Plzen in Group C, while Weston McKennie and Juventus will duel Paris Saint-Germain, Benfica and Maccabi Haifa (whose goalkeeper is Yank Josh Cohen, an unlikely star of Israel’s top flight).