Premium: Who's the USMNT No. 9?
Five Different Players Have Started at Center-Forward in 10 World Cup Qualifiers for the Goal-Poor USMNT After Sunday's 2-0 Loss at Canada
HAMILTON, Ontario — Remember October? It wasn’t that long ago. An 18-year-old named Ricardo Pepi started for the U.S. at center-forward against Jamaica and scored twice off tremendous crosses, giving him three goals in his first two games. The sample size was tiny, of course, and yet you couldn’t help but wonder: Was the USMNT potentially on the verge of ending a decades-long quest to find a truly world-class center-forward?
Three months later, in the wake of Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Canada, those three goals in those two games remain the only ones scored by any U.S. center-forward in the 10 matches of World Cup qualifying. Obviously, no verdict is in yet on Pepi, who just turned 19 and recently made a $20 million move from FC Dallas to Augsburg in the German Bundesliga, but the U.S.’s search to find a go-to No. 9 continues.
Surprisingly, coach Gregg Berhalter has chosen not to put Pepi in the lineup for either of the first two games this window, opting instead for two MLS forwards, Jesús Ferreira and Gyasi Zardes, who haven’t played club matches in nearly three months. All told, no fewer than five U.S. players have started at center-forward in World Cup qualifying: Ferreira, Jordan Pefok, Pepi, Josh Sargent and Zardes—the last of whom has made two qualifying starts, at Panama and Canada, coinciding with the U.S.’s two defeats.
The U.S. can say all it wants about controlling 64% of possession against Canada, and it certainly did on Sunday. “It’s hard for me to remember a performance away from home this dominant without getting a result,” Berhalter argued. “So the result hurts. The performance doesn’t hurt.” But the facts remain that 1) the U.S. possession dominance was due partly to the game state of Canada retreating after going ahead 1-0 in the seventh minute, and 2) despite the U.S.’s ball control, it had only one golden scoring chance: Weston McKennie’s first-half header that was saved by sweatpants-wearing keeper Milan Borjan.
Fútbol with Grant Wahl is a reader-supported soccer newsletter. You can sign up (free or paid) to get my posts in your inbox. Quality journalism requires resources. The best way to support my work is by taking out a paid subscription.
In the big picture, the U.S. is still on track to qualify for the World Cup and in second place in the Octagonal with 18 points (and a plus-6 goal difference), behind Canada (22) and ahead of Mexico (18, plus-5) and Panama (17). But the U.S.’s margin for error is slim, considering the fourth-place finisher will have to go to a one-game intercontinental playoff against the Oceania winner in June for a spot in Qatar. Beating last-place Honduras in frigid St. Paul, Minn., on Wednesday will be crucial ahead of a daunting final window in March that includes a home showdown against Panama and trips to Mexico and Costa Rica.
But there’s a worrying trend: The U.S. isn’t scoring many goals. In fact, the current output of 1.3 goals per game is the second-lowest for the U.S. in the seven final rounds of CONCACAF qualifying since the World Cup was expanded to 32 teams in the 1998 cycle.
U.S. GOALS PER GAME IN FINAL ROUND WORLD CUP QUALIFYING BY CYCLE
That’s not entirely down to the center-forward. “I don't think we created that many clear-cut chances that we should have finished,” Berhalter said after the game. “So I don't think today was an issue of poor finishing. I think it was more a lack of chance creation that I think got us down a little bit, a lack of precision in the final third.”
The U.S. doesn’t have any No. 9s who can regularly create shots on their own, and Berhalter’s game model, both as a club and national team coach, calls for wide players to provide service to the center-forward. But aside from Tim Weah’s feed to Christian Pulisic against Mexico, the U.S.’s recent crossing has been poor, as have its set-piece deliveries, which have yet to produce a single goal in 10 qualifiers. It’s probably time for Berhalter to consider assigning free kicks and corners to someone other than Pulisic.
What’s more, the U.S. isn’t striking quickly on transitions when it wins the ball in the opponent’s half. Why, even winger Brenden Aaronson, who plays in the transition-focused Red Bull system at Salzburg, had a second-half opportunity against Canada that he didn’t take advantage of and instead passed backward from a dangerous position.
“That was one of the talks at halftime,” Berhalter said. “When we win the ball in good positions, can we get forward? And some of it had to do with maybe the passing angle to a teammate they thought was too risky of a pass, but we’re certainly in positions at times where we could have been more aggressive in offensive transition, and we didn’t capitalize on it.”
U.S. WORLD CUP QUALIFYING GOALS BY POSITION (13)
Center-forwards 3 (Pepi 3)
Wingers 4 (Aaronson 2, Pulisic, Weah)
Midfielders 2 (McKennie, Lletget)
Fullbacks 3 (J. Robinson 2, Dest)
Own Goals 1
Why has Berhalter opted for Ferreira and Zardes as his starting center-forwards the last two games over Pepi?
“All of these opponents are different,” Berhalter said. “All of them bring different elements, and we want to pick the best striker that we think can get the job done in that particular game. So it will be a gameplan-specific striker. Now Ricardo’s a player that just went over to Germany. He’s just breaking in there, and I’m sure he’s going to have a long runway with the national team. And it’s just about getting him confidence and game time at the highest level. And I think he’ll eventually do that. With Jesús and Gyasi, they’re not in season yet, so it’s hard to really see the form that they’re in to say, O.K., this is the guy who’s going to be leading the line for three games in a row.”
The uncertainty is enough to make you wonder if we might see the return in the March window of Sargent (who scored his first two Premier League goals for Norwich City the day the current U.S. roster was released) or Pefok (who has 16 goals for Switzerland’s Young Boys this season, including in the UEFA Champions League against Manchester United and Atalanta).
Truth be told, though, Berhalter sounded almost envious when he spoke about Canada’s forwards, Jonathan David and Cyle Larin, who executed a deft one-two on Larin’s early goal Sunday.
“One thing that separates Canada from most of the other teams in the group is the quality of their strikers and their ability to finish a really small amount of chances,” Berhalter said. “They didn’t have many chances in this game, but they’re able to finish it off. And that first one is a great example. It’s a play out of nothing that two quality players make and gives them the win.”
Forget for a moment the U.S.’s quest for a world-class striker. Right now it would be helpful to find another Jozy Altidore or Brian McBride.
Who knew that the U.S. would beat Mexico three times in five months and the Kings of CONCACAF would be Canada?
Heading into Sunday’s game, if you panned the camera back the biggest surprise overall was that the Canadian and U.S.’s men’s sides were meeting in a showdown World Cup qualifier that involved the region’s two best teams—and that the team in first place after nine matchdays was Canada. One of the most interesting things about the rise of Canada’s men is that I don’t think they totally realize yet they’re the best story on the planet in World Cup qualifying. Which in itself is very, well, Canadian.
Every four years, I take a close look at qualifying campaigns around the world that produce compelling stories that transcend the sport. Often these are countries not considered among the elite of international soccer: Syria and Iceland in World Cup 2018 qualifying, Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2014, Israel in 2006, Liberia in 2002. The stories are captivating even when those teams come close without actually making it.
But for World Cup 2022, Canada is right at the top storywise, outpacing Mali, DR Congo and North Macedonia, which are also still alive for Qatar in November. Think about it. Canada has qualified for only one men’s World Cup, in 1986, and hadn’t even reached the final round of World Cup qualifying since the France 1998 cycle. While the U.S., Mexico and Costa Rica were among the nations whose FIFA rankings gave them an automatic berth in the final-round Octagonal, Canada had to survive a six-game round last year just to reach that stage.
And once coach John Herdman’s players got there, they just kept performing, earning ties on the road at the U.S. and Mexico and beating El Tri 2-1 in snowy Edmonton. Ten years after a humiliating 8-1 loss at Honduras ended another Canadian World Cup qualifying campaign early, the Canadians won 2-0 in the same Honduran stadium last Thursday, keeping their place atop the Octagonal. That they did so without 21-year-old superstar Alphonso Davies, who’s dealing with mild COVID-related myocarditis, showed the wealth of talent Canada has, including David, 22, the Lille striker valued by Transfermarkt at $55 million (higher than the top American, Pulisic, at $49.5 million), as well as Larin and winger Tajon Buchanan.
At the helm is Herdman, a charismatic 46-year-old Brit who in 2018 made the rare transition from coaching Canada’s women’s team for seven years to leading the men’s side. Herdman has made the most of his team’s considerable talent—a departure from previous Canadian sides, which were less than the sum of their parts—while deploying a variety of tactical approaches in qualifying that have paid off.
“On any given day, anyone can beat anyone [in CONCACAF],” Herdman said on Saturday, “so I think staying undefeated has been a massive, massive thing for this team. And it’ll be a big part of the drive tomorrow. If you’re talking about the purpose behind us, obviously it’s to qualify, but there’s a deeper purpose there.”
Canadian fans have bought in: The Land of Ice Hockey has become a soccer country, the home of the world’s most upwardly mobile men’s team and the women’s Olympic champion. No scene has better captured the Great White North’s infectious soccer joy than when Samuel Adekugbe gleefully jumped into a snow drift in Edmonton while celebrating Canada’s second goal in the win over Mexico. (He also buried his breakaway chance in the 95th minute on Sunday to seal the deal against the USMNT.)
“He’s done a great job with the program,” Berhalter said of Herdman on Saturday. “It’s the talented players that the group has, but it’s also his strong leadership and painting a vision for where the Canadian program can go. And I think once you have people buying into that vision, it’s no surprise that they’ve had the success they’ve had. We’re pulling for the Canadian team to qualify. There’s no secret about that. And it’s only tomorrow that I want them to lose, and then every other game I’m happy that they win.”
Berhalter, too, has his team on track to qualify for the World Cup, but he also had plenty of challenges on his plate leading into the Canada game, none more so than the funk his biggest star, Pulisic, has been going through recently. Pulisic struggled in Thursday’s hard-fought win over El Salvador, losing possession regularly while drifting too often into the center before finally being yanked in the 65th minute.
It’s not that Pulisic has lost his way. He scored the game-winners for the U.S. in the 2-0 qualifying victory over Mexico in November and in June’s 3-2 win over Mexico in the Nations League final. And he recently had a phenomenal finish in Chelsea’s 2-2 tie against Liverpool. But Pulisic has grown frustrated over his playing time and deployment (in positions like wingback and emergency center-forward) at Chelsea, and he has had a tendency to try to play Hero Ball for the U.S. during qualifying, overdribbling into giveaways when playing it forward quickly would have been the better option.
On Saturday, Berhalter reiterated that he has no issues with Pulisic’s effort but acknowledged that he may be trying to do too much. “He’s a guy that does everything he can for the team to be successful,” Berhalter said. “For his teammates and for himself, it’s just understanding that every player has their role within the team. It’s a very balanced team, and we don’t need one guy to be the hero necessarily. And I think there’s maybe some unwanted pressure that Christian is putting on himself because he’s a great teammate. He’s a great player, and he can be the perfect game-changer for us used in the right way. For us, it’s just getting him the ball in good positions where he can hurt the opponent.”
To his credit, Pulisic has spoken openly about mental health, including having seen a therapist during parts of the pandemic. And he opened up a bit last week with reporters when asked about how he’s dealing with the situation at Chelsea.
“It’s a lot sometimes,” Pulisic said. “When I come to the national team, it’s always, ‘How are things at Chelsea? What’s this? What’s that?’ And yeah, it’s tough. It’s tough. It’s definitely played a lot on me. And mentally it’s been difficult at times, but I’m always very excited to come back with the national team and sort of step away and get to enjoy playing with these guys and get to just enjoying football in general.”
When Landon Donovan saw Pulisic’s quotes and then his demeanor during the El Salvador game, he became concerned. Donovan himself went through stretches in his career when his mental health suffered and he wasn’t enjoying the sport. In fact, he was one of the first athletes to speak openly about his mental health.
“You could see it in his face [against El Salvador],” Donovan said afterward. “When there were some closeups, you could see it just didn’t seem like he’s really enjoying it. Even on a night he is a little bit off, he has flashes where he pulls off plays that could have led to goals. But I just as a human want to see him get back to just enjoying [soccer]. Because when he does that, he’s spectacular.”
After another frustrating day on Sunday, Pulisic is due for big game in a U.S. jersey. Wednesday’s qualifier against Honduras presents a tantalizing opportunity for one. The Catrachos were eliminated from World Cup qualifying on Sunday, and Central American teams have struggled in the third game of the CONCACAF qualifying windows.
“Our focus right now is finishing off the window with a win against Honduras,” Berhalter said on Sunday. “We know it’s easier said than done, but that’s going to be our goal. If we can do that, we'll be in good position. And then it’s about going into the last window and getting results.”
If the U.S. can win its remaining home games, it will likely reach the World Cup. And the lack of goal-scoring this cycle can always be rectified. After all, the U.S.’s worst modern qualifying cycle for goals came in 2002, which culminated in a historic World Cup quarterfinal run in South Korea/Japan. But the margins are slim in the international game, and the U.S. can’t slip up this Wednesday in Minnesota.
The lack of goal scoring “ can always be rectified? “ No offense, but what are we waiting for? I would also note that Canada beat Honduras by the same score they beat the US (2-0). So that tells me the US is on the same level of Honduras. Certainly, we are playing like it. And in the Minnesota snow bowl, anything can happen. And we are going to be without Adams and Richards, at minimum. I don’t think we can confidently project a victory, even though Honduras is eliminated. Truly, we are playing like the same failed teams that did not qualify for the WC four years ago. I had turned away from US soccer but became re-generated with all this young talent. But they are playing as though they are no better at all. It is really discouraging
This is terrifying to think, but is a healthy Jozy our best striker for WC '22? It sure feels like he could be back in the picture if he heals up and gets in form.