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.
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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.”
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