It was almost a year ago to the day that Ricardo Pepi helped turn around the United State men’s national team qualifying campaign for World Cup 2022 with the game-winning goal and some essential playmaking in a 4-1 comeback victory at Honduras.
USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter is in the mood to return the favor, attempting to invigorate Pepi’s young career by inviting him to participate – rather than red-hot Jordan Pefok – in the final two prep games for the World Cup that arrives two months hence in Qatar.
If this seems a confusing decision, Berhalter did a fair job of explaining his process in a press conference Tuesday, although getting through to the essential message required a smidge of interpretation.
First, Berhalter made it clear: “It’s important to keep mind, this is not the final roster.” The 26 players chosen for friendlies in Europe against Japan (Sept. 23) and Saudi Arabia (Sept. 27) are not likely to be the same group announced by U.S. Soccer Nov. 9 for the World Cup. Injured regulars Timothy Weah, Jedi Robinson and Zack Steffen all are missing. Only three true strikers were included, with Jesus Ferreira of FC Dallas and Josh Sargent of Norwich City joining Pepi, who is on loan at FC Gronigen, and it’s all but certain that’s the most that will make the World Cup.
Second, Berhalter insisted he had a handle on Pefok’s ability: “We’re pretty confident we know Jordan’s profile. We know what he can do. And we didn’t feel like we needed to see him in this camp to determine whether he could be on the roster or not.”
Indeed, the world is getting quite a good look at Pefok in his spectacular club performances for Union Berlin, who surprisingly sit top of the Bundesliga table. The 26-year-old has scored four goals and delivered three assists in eight games for Union Berlin, six of those in the Bundesliga. His latest, a diving header against Wolfsburg just before the international break to send Union Berlin back top of the table, was yet another great example of his ability to fit into the USMNT system that wishes to attack quickly after turning the opponent over.
Pepi, meanwhile, quite literally has not found the back of the net in any serious competition since striking twice in a qualifying victory over Jamaica last October.
Third, Berhalter explained the idea behind including Pepi: “Keep in mind, this is a guy who scored three times for us in World Cup qualifying and has had a tough time since then. We’re trying to get him confidence. We’re trying to get him into the group and seeing if he can make a push for the final roster. That’s TBD right now.
“We watched his game this week…and you can see that he can be dominant in the Dutch league. And now it’s a question of if he actually is, and can he really take his game to the next level? We saw some good things from him, and we’ll get him in the group and see what he can do
If there is room for three strikers on the 26-player roster for Qatar — and having Weah and gifted teen Gio Reyna healthy might make that difficult – it seems to come down to this:
“I think we’ve been consistent in saying it may not be the best forward that is in the group. It’s the guy that fits what we’re doing the best,” Berhalter said. “We’re pretty confident we know what Jordan can do. It’s been fun watching him play. He’s off to a great start in the Bundesliga, and we opted for someone else in this camp.
“Pepi has also had some good history with us. He started really important games. And we just weren’t willing to give all that up right now, on Pepi. We still think there’s a big upside with him.”
If Pefok continues scoring goals in the Bundesliga, and if first-place Union Berlin continues to roll, it will be almost impossible for Berhalter to keep him off the roster, if only as an option to chase a late-game comeback. Sargent has been on fire as well, with five games and an assist in eight games against the competition in England’s Championship division, but his prior performances for the USMNT or last year in the Premier League have not been enticing.
“There aren’t easy decisions. And I can understand Jordan should be in consideration. He was in consideration. Major consideration,” Berhalter said. “In the end, we decided to go with these three strikers in this camp to be able to evaluate them.
“With Jordan, he’s been putting a hell of an effort in. He’s been working hard. He’s been a handful to play against. He’s been doing a lot of things right.”
It is easy to forget how much a part of the qualification effort Pepi was, especially as his impact diminished following his move to Augsburg in the Bundesliga last January. He appeared in 10 of 14 games in the “Octagonal”, including starts in three of the last four qualifiers. Pefok only appeared in three qualifying games. He has one national team goal in nine caps.
Pepi’s possible influence on the USMNT might best be summarized by a single play in that Honduras game last September. The U.S. trailed 1-0, but inside three minutes of the second half Pepi won a contested ball just beyond the halfway line, dished it to Christian Pulisic and then charged toward the box to deflect a cross toward Robinson, who tied the game. He then won the game doing typical striker things, his header off a perfect cross from DeAndre Yedlin proving to be the decisive goal.
“He is a guy that we’ve counted on the past,” Berhalter said, “and we wanted to give him an opportunity in this window.”