World Cup door shut? Pefok, Pepi & the USA's striker conundrum

Jordan Pefok

After the US men’s national team announced their 26-man September camp roster, who is the player with the biggest gripe about being omitted?

Union Berlin striker Jordan Pefok probably has his hand raised the highest, with head coach Gregg Berhalter instead calling in Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas), Josh Sargent (Norwich City) and Ricardo Pepi (Groningen) as his three No. 9s.

Fresh off a move from Swiss side Young Boys, Pefok has two goals and two assists in five matches for the German Bundesliga’s first-place team. That’s nothing to scoff at, though Extratime’s Charlie Davies feels it’s a more complicated calculus when delving into the position’s complete profile.

“What’s working against Jordan Pefok is his style of play,” Davies said. “In Gregg Berhalter’s mind, he does not do the things that he needs his No. 9 to do, which is press, to be able to shape the team defensively, to have enough pace to cover the ground and being able to check for the ball and do those dynamic runs that he is not known for. Jordan Pefok is a finisher, he’s the one who gets in the box, he’s a big body, he occupies space.”

Perhaps at Pefok’s expense, Pepi is back with the USMNT for their upcoming friendlies against Japan (Sept. 23) and Saudi Arabia (Sept. 27). It’s the final window before teams descend on Qatar for the FIFA 2022 World Cup, with the Yanks starting Group B play Nov. 21 against Wales.

But Pepi’s form has dipped following a reported $20 million move from FC Dallas to German Bundesliga side FC Augsburg last winter. And he’s since been loaned out, searching for the spark that made him a homegrown star in MLS before heading to Europe.

“It feels like it’s Pepi’s spot to lose and with the way he’s been playing he probably will lose it,” said Extratime’s David Gass. “But Gregg Berhalter’s trying this one last chance to sort of push him.

“Now he’s in the Eredivise. Does he get confidence coming into this camp? Does he go back and score goals? If he does, he probably makes it. If not, it’s Pefok’s spot to have back. I guess the hope there is Pefok is professional enough, even with the way he’s been pushed out, to still come in and perform with the opportunity to go to a World Cup.”

Another player who had a shout, Extratime’s Tom Bogert said, is FC Cincinnati striker Brandon Vazquez. He’s uncapped at the senior level, though is the second-highest domestic scorer in MLS this season with 16 goals and five assists for a reborn Orange & Blue group.

There’s a to-be-announced October camp looming for USMNT players in MLS, to help with pre-World Class sharpness, but Bogert contended an opportunity there might not be enough for the 23-year-old.

“I really wish he got a chance in this camp to show what he can do because I don’t that you can bring him into the full team for the World Cup without having him in a camp whatsoever,” Bogert said. “ … You know what you have in Pefok, I think you know what you have in Pepi. I know the idea is to try and get [Pepi] a little confidence here even though he hasn’t scored a club goal in a year now. We don’t know what Brandon Vazquez looks like in this group.”

Still, Pefok’s appeal can prove convincing. Plus with Ferreira appearing like a lock and Sargent back producing in the English Championship, there could be value in a player like the 6-foot-3 target man.

“I think there’s something to be said in having some variety in your No. 9 pool because maybe the game changes and the player you need who is pressing and doing those dynamic runs isn’t needed in that match, so you have to adjust,” Davies said of Pefok. “And in order to adjust, you have to have different player profiles. And this is a player who’s scoring goals in the Bundesliga against top competition.”

The door doesn’t seem completely shut, either.

“[Pefok] misses the camp, but that’s not saying he’s not going to be in the World Cup roster,” Davies said.

For more from this Extratime episode, click here.