At World Cup, USMNT striker selections may come down to form and fit
At World Cup, USMNT striker selections may come down to form and fit

For the first time in years, several different U.S. men’s national team strikers are firing at the same time.

Jeremy Ebobisse, Jesus Ferreira, Jordan Pefok, Josh Sargent, Brandon Vazquez and Haji Wright are all in fine form, with Ebobisse, Ferreira and Vazquez continuing their solid MLS seasons with some good play over the last month and Pefok, Sargent and Wright each off to strong starts in the 2022-23 campaign with their European clubs.

League play since July 30, 2022

PlayerAppsGAG/90A/90

MLS

Ebobisse

6

3

1

0.5

0.17

Ferreira

6

3

0

0.59

0

Vazquez

5

5

0

1.02

0

Europe

Pefok

4

2

2

0.64

0.64

Sargent

7

4

0

0.81

0

Wright

4

5

1

1.3

0.26

It’s unfamiliar territory for U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter, who was forced to choose between a group of mostly slumping strikers for the bulk of World Cup qualifying. The five different No. 9s that Berhalter started during the CONCACAF Octagonal combined for just four goals in 14 qualifiers. Ricardo Pepi had three of those tallies in two games last fall, but he hasn’t scored in 28 games across all competitions for club and country since the second of those matches last October. Ferreira added the other strike in March, then bagged four goals in a CONCACAF Nations League win against Grenada in June. Wright also scored in the June window, converting from the penalty spot in the 3-1 friendly win against Morocco.

Of course, a solid few weeks does not mean that the U.S. is all of a sudden set at striker. Giant question marks remain about how those who are chosen for the World Cup will perform in Qatar.

When evaluating Berhalter’s options at the position, it’s helpful to break them out by category, because not all strikers are asked to do the same things. One might be tasked with serving as a target and outlet in possession, another might be asked to drop into midfield to shoulder some of the creative burden, while another might focus strictly on getting himself into dangerous positions in the opponent’s penalty box. Berhalter will likely want at least a couple of those different types on the squad that he brings to Qatar.

To account for those differences when comparing players, The Athletic’s John Muller came up with a new system of 18 unique player roles. The roles are presented within six broad player categories (central attackers, wide attackers, advanced midfielders, etc.), with each of the categories then divided into three roles (central attackers are broken into finishers, targets and roamers). The system separates strikers like the smaller, creative Ferreira from bigger line-leaders like Wright, theoretically allowing for sensible comparisons between players with similar qualities.

Here’s how the model defines the three different types of central attackers:

  • Roamer: Likes to drop deep or wide to create for teammates when he’s not attacking the goal. Includes mobile strikers, false nines and hybrid wingers.
  • Target: Involved in his team’s buildup play, especially in the air or by dropping towards the ball. Typically more of a goal threat than a creative passer or dribbler.
  • Finisher: Focused on getting in the box and finding shots. May be good on the ball but isn’t very involved in possession.

Muller’s model classified Sargent as a roamer in the Premier League with Norwich City last season and in the Bundesliga with Werder Bremen in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 campaigns. His role has changed a bit in the Championship this season, however, resulting in a tweaked label in this piece. The system sadly doesn’t categorize players outside of the big five European leagues, meaning it didn’t tag career MLSers Ebobisse, Ferreira or Vazquez; Wright, who has spent the last few seasons in Turkey and Denmark; or Pefok, who just moved from Switzerland to the German Bundesliga this summer.

That didn’t stop me from designating them on my own, though. Here’s an analysis of Berhalter’s options at striker heading into the September international window and rapidly-approaching World Cup through the lens of The Athletic’s set of unique player roles.

The Roamers

Jesus Ferreira

As things stand, Ferreira is perhaps the frontrunner to start for the U.S. in Qatar. The 21-year-old has emerged in recent months as the No. 1 option at the position, starting one match in each of the final two qualifying windows before getting the vast majority of playing time in the four matches in June.

He’s very much in the mold of a roamer. The 5-foot-9 Ferreira regularly drops into midfield, which can force opposing teams into some difficult, unbalanced spots. If a center back follows him when he drops into the middle, Ferreira can try to play a quick pass around the corner or lay the ball off to a teammate, who can then look for a winger running into space behind the backline. If the center back doesn’t track Ferreira and he’s able to find a pocket off the shoulder of a defensive midfielder, he can find the ball, turn and pick a pass on his own. Both of those kinds of plays are often followed by Ferreira making a late-arriving run into the box, where he’s been particularly effective for Dallas this season.

He doesn’t even need to receive the ball in the initial movement to make an impact. Ferreira dropping into midfield naturally creates additional space in behind for the talented wingers on FCD and the U.S., space that they can exploit on their own or in concert with Ferreira.

The U.S. took advantage of one such situation against Morocco in June. Ferreira checked back to the ball in the center circle and a Morocco center back stayed relatively tight to him, allowing room for Christian Pulisic to make a diagonal run behind. Walker Zimmerman found him with a long ball over the top, with Pulisic taking a spectacular first touch and cutting a pass back to Brenden Aaronson for an easy finish.

We saw another example in Dallas earlier this month. Ferreira positioned himself inside the center circle, where he was marked by Philadelphia midfielder Alejandro Bedoya. Dallas wingers Alan Velasco and Paul Arriola were both stationed higher up the field, with FCD eventually bypassing Ferreira and playing a through ball directly to Arriola down the right wing. Ferreira did a nice job of anticipating the pass to Arriola and blew into a wide open space between Bedoya and center back Jakob Glesnes as soon as it was hit. Arriola squared a pass to him just as he arrived at the top of the box, where the unmarked Ferreira smartly sidestepped the sagging Glesnes and powered a shot into the net.

Philadelphia could have done a better job of defending the play, but Ferreira helped create his own space with his initial positioning and then exploited it with his subsequent run. Once he received the ball, he did an excellent job of beating his man and finishing. It’s relatively easy to imagine the USMNT — which plays a similar system as Dallas, which is coached by former Berhalter assistant Nico Estevez — recreating that kind of move.

Of course, apart from the game against Grenada, we haven’t seen Ferreira finish at a high level with the U.S. He missed a decent opportunity against Morocco, then failed on a couple of good looks in the follow-up 0-0 friendly draw against Uruguay. He has done well in that area in Dallas this season, however. He’s third in MLS with 15 non-penalty goals in 2022 and, according to FBref’s public StatsBomb data, he’s outperforming his non-penalty expected goals total by 3.7, the seventh-best such mark in MLS this year.

He can also pick out a pass. Ferreira tallied nine assists in 27 matches while playing primarily as an attacking midfielder in 2021. Playing as a striker this season, he has five assists in 28 appearances. His 4.7 expected assists and 43 key passes are the most in the league in 2022 among center forwards.

He went through a bit of a slump this summer, but, with three goals in his last three games, he’s gotten himself back on track recently. He looks like a sure call-up for the September friendlies against Japan and Saudi Arabia and, barring something dramatic, will likely be on the plane to Qatar. We already know that he can help the U.S. create chances in a way that’s relatively unique compared to the other options up top. If he can start to finish at the international level like he has in MLS, the ceiling for the Americans at the World Cup could rise significantly.

The Targets

Jeremy Ebobisse

(Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Ebobisse hasn’t really been a part of the national team picture under Berhalter, but his solid performances for a poor San Jose team this season merit his inclusion in this discussion.

With 14 goals in 27 appearances, he sits just one goal behind Ferreira and two behind Vazquez for top among all American players in MLS, though, unlike Ferreira and Vazquez, one of his tallies came from the penalty spot. Ebobisse is slightly outperforming his non-penalty expected goals this season, though he is a bit behind Ferreira and Vazquez by that measure. As is to be expected, he’s not as active in buildup play as Ferreira, but he does a good job of making himself available as an outlet for an Earthquakes outfit that often looks to go forward at speed. He compares favorably to his fellow target Vazquez in most passing metrics and in how efficient he is with his hold-up play, too.

He’s also scoring in a variety of ways. His three goals in his last six games varied significantly, with all three being at least somewhat impressive. He quickly and decisively took advantage of a brutal turnover to score against RSL on July 30, did a good job of losing his mark and rising up for a powerful header to equalize late at Austin on Aug. 6 and showed off his ball striking ability with a rip from just outside the box with his weaker foot against Dallas on Aug. 13.

While he’s having a solid year in MLS (which, it should be noted, is his first full professional season playing as a full-time striker), it’d be a bit of a surprise to see the 25-year-old get a chance with the USMNT ahead of the World Cup. Berhalter has never really seemed to rate him — his last involvement with the national team came at a U-23 camp in January 2021, which preceded him being left off the U.S. roster for their failed bid to qualify for the Olympics later that winter. Ebobisse, who is also eligible to represent World Cup-bound Cameroon, has been pretty open with his feeling that he has long odds of getting to Qatar.

“I don’t, frankly,” he told MLSsoccer.com’s Charles Boehm when asked if he’s holding out hope of breaking into the U.S. setup prior to the World Cup. “It’s about performing for San Jose first and foremost. If something changes, if I’m playing well — and soccer is a crazy game, a lot of things happen and force reevaluations. But at the moment, no, I don’t think I’m there.”

That quote was from more than a month ago, but it still feels pretty apt. If the other striker options were still flailing around like they were at this point last year, Ebobisse might have a shot at making the roster for September. But with so many others also excelling, him making the team for next month’s friendlies feels relatively unlikely.

Josh Sargent

(Joe Giddens/PA Images via Getty Images)

Sargent struggled through an extremely difficult 2021-22 season, recording just two goals and one assist in 26 games played mostly on the wing for a brutal Norwich team that finished last in the Premier League.

Things weren’t much better for him at the international level. He began qualifying as the U.S.’s first option at striker but only ended up making two appearances in the Octagonal: an uninspiring performance in the opener at El Salvador and a poor shift at winger at Honduras later in the first window. He looked set for a recall for the June friendlies, but an injury kept him out of the camp.

He’s now healthy — and thriving. Sargent has adapted well to life in the Championship, especially since he was inserted as starting striker after Teemu Pukki suffered an injury a few games into the campaign. He has four goals in his last four matches, a stretch that included a brace against Millwall on Aug. 19. He’s the only player on Norwich with more than two goals so far this season.

His first goal in the performance against Millwall was a good example of what he can offer. Sargent dropped off Millwall’s center backs to the middle of the attacking third, received a pass and immediately played a teammate into the box with his first touch. He then darted past the opposing center back, did well to receive a return ball that was played just a bit behind him and slammed a shot into the top corner at the near post. It was good movement, good combination play and an excellent finish.

Sargent was categorized as a roamer by The Athletic’s model over his last three seasons in the Premier League and Bundesliga, but he played a significant amount of time on the wing during that period. During his run as a striker this season, he’s playing like more of a target. He’s comfortable operating in wide areas, but he’s mainly staying high and central; he doesn’t drop into midfield nearly as much and isn’t as good at pulling strings with his passes as Ferreira, either. He’s still been an important part of Norwich’s buildup play in recent weeks, but he’s done that more by making short, darting runs away from defenders and quickly finding teammates than by dropping deep into midfield and trying to create.

He also seems like he’s developed physically since he last played for the U.S., showing off some solid strength on his second goal against Millwall.

That physicality could be important for the U.S., as it makes him more of an aerial threat than Ferreira. If he can do a decent job of dropping off of defenders and combining in possession and still hit the back of the net with some amount of regularity for Norwich, he’ll have a good case not just to be included on the U.S.’s World Cup squad, but to get significant minutes in Qatar.

Brandon Vazquez

(Photo: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports)

Vazquez has been something of a revelation for Cincinnati this MLS season, tallying 16 goals and four assists in his 26 regular season appearances. He’s tied with Sebastian Driussi for the league lead in non-penalty goals, and is outperforming his expected goals number by an even 3.0.

Clocking in at 6-foot-2, 196 pounds and possessing decent speed, Vazquez is a physical force who is fast enough to break out effectively in transition. He’s also a high-volume outlet for Cincinnati. He’s actually been the target of more passes than any other striker in MLS this season, according to FBref’s StatsBomb data, though he’s far from the most efficient in terms of his ability to retain the ball after he receives it. That doesn’t mean he can’t do good things with his back to goal — he absolutely can — just that he’s got some room to grow in that regard.

One area where he’s already thriving? His movement in the box. It feels like almost every goal Vazquez has scored this season has come as a result of quick and decisive movement in the penalty area, followed by a strong, often first-time finish.

His goal against Philadelphia earlier this month was a great example. He made a hard run across Union center back Jack Elliot to free himself to get on the end of a low cross from Alvaro Barreal, then buried a shot inside the near post with his left foot.

His second goal at Miami a week earlier was another good look at his strong movement and finishing ability, as was the late winner he scored at Minnesota in May. The Athletic’s Felipe Cardenas wrote about that goal in more detail in his piece on Vazquez from earlier this month.

One could easily argue Vazquez, who is also eligible to represent Mexico, moves better in the box than any other American striker. Combine that with the solid finishing he’s shown this year (glaring miss on Saturday notwithstanding), and it feels like he’s basically a lock to get a look in September. Don’t be surprised if he and Sargent end up duking it out for one spot on the final World Cup roster — or if they both make it ahead of the next two names on this list.

The Finishers

Jordan Pefok

(David Inderlied/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Pefok has picked up where he left off last season on the club level, recording two goals and two assists in his first four Bundesliga games with Union Berlin after moving to the German club this summer following a 22-goal campaign with Swiss side BSC Young Boys.

He fits into this category because of his relatively low involvement in possession. In four matches so far this season, Pefok has only attempted 44 total passes, according to FBref’s StatsBomb data. He’s active as an aerial target, but he’s not doing much dropping off of opponents’ backlines, mostly staying high, occupying center backs and looking to get himself in good positions to finish. When Union is out of possession, Pefok is an active presser, ranking near the top of Bundesliga forwards in number of pressures attempted so far this season.

His first goal of the year, in the season opener against Hertha Berlin, was a good look at his ability in the area. Union quickly advanced the ball down the left wing, with second forward Sheraldo Becker eventually curling a cross to the near post. Pefok, who was the only attacker in the 18, beat his defender to the ball with a hard run to the corner of the six-yard box and neatly flicked his header inside the far post.

He showed something a bit different on Aug. 20 against Leipzig. He received a through ball from Becker on the break just outside the penalty box, set himself with a calm first touch, held off a couple of defenders and then threaded a low shot inside the far post for an excellent goal.

He returned the favor a few minutes later, beating a defender to a contested ball near midfield and playing a pass around the corner for Becker, who made a long run into the area and curled a shot inside the far post.

While his start at Union Berlin has been overwhelmingly positive, club form has never been the issue with Pefok, who has not yet been able to translate his solid play in Europe to the USMNT. He struggled in his three chances in qualifying, failing to make an impact as a sub in El Salvador and as a starter against Canada last September and putting in a pretty woeful shift off the bench — featuring an infamous miss — at Mexico in March. That could hurt his odds of making the U.S. roster in September, though his ability in the air, in particular, means he adds value for the Americans as a late-game substitute.

Haji Wright

(Mustafa Ciftci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A one-time wonderkid, Wright drew plenty of attention when he was called up for the first time this cycle in June. The hype around the 24-year-old only built further after he converted a penalty minutes into his senior national team debut against Morocco, but things didn’t go so great from there. Wright was a non-factor off the bench in the friendly against Uruguay, didn’t feature in the blowout win against Grenada and was yanked at halftime of the Nations League draw at El Salvador, with Berhalter critiquing his performance to the media after that match.

None of that seemed to bode well for his World Cup hopes, but he’s likely breathed new life into them with his brilliant start to the Turkish Super Lig season with Antalyaspor, where he moved on a full transfer this summer following a successful loan spell at the club last season. He has five goals in his first four games of the campaign, and while one of those tallies came via penalty and another courtesy of a massive deflection, he showed off good finishing ability on his three other strikes, including on both of his goals from a defeat last Friday. Here’s his second finish from that match, which ended in a 5-2 defeat:

Like Pefok, Wright very much fits into the finisher role. He’s not involved much in buildup play — his primary responsibility with his club is to stay high and central and try to free himself for chances in the box. FBref doesn’t have data available for the Turkish league, but, according to WyScout’s numbers, he has only attempted 51 passes and only been involved in 15 aerial duels in four games this season. He’s also not all that active of a presser, either — Pefok seems to offer more in that category with Union Berlin than Wright does with Antalyaspor.

Berhalter asks a lot from his striker in that regard, something that could perhaps hurt Wright’s odds of getting back into the team for September or for the World Cup. It’s impossible to argue with his goal record so far this season, though. If he keeps hitting the net like he has thus far, he’ll make it very, very hard for Berhalter to leave him off either of the next two rosters, no matter his other limitations.

Where do things stand? 

If Berhalter had to name a roster today, I think he’d select three strikers: Ferreira, Sargent and Vazquez. That’d give him one option in Ferreira who looks to drop deep into midfield and a pair of bigger, more physical forwards with more traditional all-round profiles in Sargent and Vazquez. One roamer, two targets.

This race isn’t over yet, of course. Pefok and Wright are knocking on the door, and either could be in the top-three today depending on what kinds of skill sets Berhalter wants to mix together. Ebobisse is at the ready if an option or two that appear to be ahead of him falters. Pepi is probably still in the mix, as well, though he’ll need to work his way onto the field and onto the scoresheet with his club before he gets back on the U.S. team. Even Daryl Dike and Jozy Altidore probably still have outside shots. It’d take a ton for either of them to make the roster, but stranger things have happened.

The U.S. still has issues at striker, but, as a whole, the group is in better shape today than it was at any point in the last year. There is no star, but if two or three of the aforementioned options can continue on their current trajectories for the next few months, the Americans would at least be able to feel decent about the state of their No. 9s heading into Qatar. Considering where things stood at the position throughout the entirety of qualifying, that wouldn’t be such a bad place to end up.

(Top photo: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)



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