- With less than three months until the World Cup, the U.S. men’s national team’s striker race is heating up
- While a number of No. 9s force themselves into World Cup consideration, let’s analyze what each individual brings to table
With less than three months until the World Cup, the U.S. men’s national team’s striker race is heating up. Domestically and abroad, many American strikers have been enjoying fine runs of form leading into the September international window – which will be Gregg Berhalter’s last chance at evaluating the player pool prior to Qatar.
With so many No. 9s forcing themselves into World Cup consideration, let’s try to make sense of it all and analyze what each individual brings to table.
JESÚS FERREIRA, FC DALLAS
Berhalter has given Jesus Ferreira consistent minutes at the No. 9 and up to this point, it seems that the 21-year-old is the man he trusts to lead the line.
One of the biggest reasons Berhalter keeps Ferreira on the team sheet is because of his ability to play as a false nine. For both club and country, Ferreira drops into midfield constantly to link up play with his midfielders. His ability to dribble through tight spaces and his smart passing makes him press resistant and pulls defenders out of position.
Here’s an example of Ferreira dropping into midfield to open up space in the flanks against the Sounders on August 2.
Another main reason Ferreira has been Berhalter’s go-to is what he does off the ball. The Dallas forward is a fantastic presser and isn’t afraid to do the dirty work to win the ball. So far in MLS this year, Ferreira is averaging 20.88 pressures a game, which is in the 88th percentile for forwards across the league according to FBRef.
In the attacking third, he’s great at finding space in behind on the counter attack. The one constant criticism for Ferreira, however, is his inability to convert these chances, and lower xG chances, into goals at the international level.
Despite being a prolific goalscorer in MLS (he has outperformed his xG by 0.15 per 90 this season), it hasn’t exactly clicked with the USMNT. Ferreira’s inability to consistently score goals for the U.S. (against teams with names that don’t rhyme with Shrenada) is the reason why the striker position continues to be a question mark for the United States.
I still love you though Jesús.
JORDAN PEFOK, UNION BERLIN
Jordan Pefok seems to have made a habit of exceeding my expectations so I wouldn’t put it past him to make this analysis redundant by next weekend, but I’ll still take a crack at it.
For Young Boys, Pefok was a target man who used his size and movement in the box to get his head on the end of crosses and be the beneficiary of six-yard-box pinball situations. Of Pefok’s 18 non-penalty goals in the Swiss Super League last season, 14 of them were scored directly or indirectly from a cross into the box.
Since joining Union Berlin, Pefok has gone through a slight transformation in his play style. He has continued his aerial dominance in the box with the German team. However, he’s also contributing to the buildup and has been a threat in-behind on counter attacks as demonstrated by his goal this past Saturday.
The most drastic change in his play style, though, has come in his pressing. In the Bundesliga this year, Pefok has 46 pressures so far, which is good 18th in the league and second at Union Berlin. That’s a staggering number for a guy that was formerly shoehorned solely as a big target striker.
That being said, improvement doesn’t equal mastery. Pefok still struggles with his first touch and is nowhere near as comfortable on the ball as someone like Ferreira.
Another big question, for Pefok and all these American strikers, is how the goals will translate on the international stage. Like Ferreira, Pefok has enjoyed a wealth of productivity at club level but has never seemed to find his scoring boots under Berhalter.
BRANDON VAZQUEZ, FC CINCINNATI
Brandon Vazquez is the only striker being considered for Qatar who hasn’t played under Berhalter yet, so he’s the biggest question mark – especially considering he’s had less than a season of consistent performances.
But in the small sample size we have of Vazquez, he’s shown definite promise. The first thing you notice is his size. He’s 6’3” and is built like Clark Kent, which definitely gives him an advantage in air. But what has made him an elite goalscorer in MLS this year has been his ability to combine his physical attributes with his instincts in the box.
This sequence against Inter Miami demonstrates how Vazquez always checks his runs, switches his movement on defenders’ back shoulders, and uses his body to get a yard of space. In saying that though, he’s not just a pure fox-in-the-box type of striker.
His work rate off the ball is pretty impressive and he has a brilliant pass or two in his arsenal.
The worry I have about Vazquez’s game is whether he can adapt to quicker game speed. His first touch needs some work and he’s not particularly press resistant. Usually his size and athleticism help him, but against an aggressive pressing team that can overwhelm Vazquez’s strength, he struggles.
In this instance, John Tolkin stays tight on Vazquez as he attempts to take a touch off his thigh to go upfield. When his touch gets away from him, Tolkin pounces and wins the ball and a foul.
JOSH SARGENT, NORWICH CITY
When Josh Sargent made his move to Norwich over a year ago, many USMNT fans hoped Daniel Farke would tap into his unrealized potential and turn him into a goal machine. Instead, he played Sargent as a ball-winning right winger. That was far from ideal for Sargent, but it does speak to his versatility and his work rate.
His pressing and defensive stats last year in the Premier League were quite impressive and he worked his tail off in the trenches to keep an awful Norwich team in games.
Recently in the Championship though, Sargent has gotten his first taste of playing as a lone striker in a long time and it’s safe to say he’s capitalizing on the opportunity. He’s looked great in combination play, he’s making smart runs in the box, and (the best part) he’s scoring impressive goals.
The big issue with Sargent at Werder Bremen and, later, Norwich, was that he couldn’t seem to consistently finish his chances – and he also struggled to move into goal dangerous spots with any regularity.
When he had to make a snapshot decision, it seemed his instincts for goal would kick in like when he scored his infamous scorpion kick against Watford last year. But when he had time to think before his shot, Sargent would either scuff his attempt or take too long to make a decision.
But Sargent looks like a changed man with his recent performances. His second goal against Millwall in particular was somewhat reminiscent of his performances when he was dominating at the youth international levels.
This goal really represents Sargent at his best: fighting and pressing his way to start a counter and finishing it off with a precise, delicate finish. This type of Sargent – one that has full confidence in himself and is consistently scoring – is the closest the U.S. has in its pool to a complete striker.
HAJI WRIGHT, ANTALYASPOR
Haji Wright’s physical profile – he stands at 6’3″ – screams ‘target forward’. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Wright doesn’t thrive in the air, preferring to receive the ball with his feet.
His hold up play is strong and much of that has to do with how smooth the 24-year-old is on the ball. With his back to goal he’s deceivingly agile and he can use his frame to hold off a defender and slip past him after laying the ball off to a teammate. When Wright is at his best, though, is when he’s running in-behind a back line. At full sprint, Wright looks like he’s twice as fast as opposing defenders thanks to his long strides.
In front of goal, Wright has proven to be a clinical goalscorer in the Turkish Super Lig and is not afraid to take a shot with either foot. If you’re looking for a simple player comparison, think of Wright as the Dollar Store version of Erling Haaland. He’s quick, tall, athletic, aggressive with his pressing, and loves to run into open space. He’s not afraid to take the leather off the ball either.
Like the other No. 9s on this list, though, we’re yet to see if Wright’s club goalscoring will translate to the national team.