USMNT analysis

A look at the USMNT center forward pool as Sargent, Pepi, and Wright continue strong seasons

ASN's Brian Sciaretta looks at the USMNT player pool as Sargent's rise could see him push Pepi or Balogun, and Vazquez looks promising in Mexico. Meanwhile, McGuire looks to take a role with the Olympic team. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
February 15, 2024
8:05 AM

RIGHT NOW, the U.S. national team center forward position looks deep because there are a lot of players scoring goals in a variety of leagues. It’s true that no one is bagging them at the highest of levels, but there are numerous options of players who should be able to score. But stylistically and with issues related to chemistry, putting it all together is not that simple.

Two weeks ago, ASN looked at the USMNT goalkeeping position. It wasn’t a positive piece.

Last week, ASN looked at the USMNT central defense pool and it was overall more positive, but also concerning with the lack of younger player pushing to enter the picture.

This week we look at center forward. There is more good news than bad in the player pool at this position. On the good side, there are a lot of players who are playing regularly and who are scoring. On the flip side, there are still issues of experience and playing styles that could affect the ability of the players to translate club form into international form.

But let’s get into it:


The Player Pool


Folarin Balogun: After switching his affiliation to the United States in 2023, Balogun has walked into the USMNT starting XI and has been the team’s top option. But things haven’t been going as well for him at Monaco this season compared with last season at Reims when he bagged 21. Now in mid-February, he has just four and has scored just once in Ligue 1 since October 7. With the national team, he also has looked off since a successful Nations League performance in June.

For Balogun, the issue is chemistry with his teammates. How well can they understand him and the runs he makes. It’s different than a target striker. Balogun needs to be around players who know him. As we see with Monaco, it can be an issue at the club level. Monaco has better players than Reims, but he played better at Reims. This is a big challenge for Gregg Berhalter and the rest of the USMNT to get the most out of Balogun. It’s made harder by the fact national teams just aren’t together that much.

Ricardo Pepi: Long-term, Pepi is in a good spot at PSV. He is producing at a solid rate, despite not playing that much. He has five goals in 229 minutes in the Eredivisie and one goal (his biggest of his career) in 109 minutes of the Champions League. There also hasn’t been much pressure as every one of his league goals have come with a multigoal cushion against completely overmatched opponents. Luuk de Jong does all the heavy lifting for PSV and Pepi is a project. For the USMNT, he’s a bet on the future. It’s a smart bet, but is he the best option of the team needs to win now?

Josh Sargent: While Pepi and Balogun have been the USMNT options the past year, Sargent is pushing them. If everyone’s form holds from the past two months, it will be impossible to leave Sargent off future rosters. Ever since coming back from a nearly four-month injury, Sargent has been on a terrific run and this season he now has eight goals in 729 minutes. He is the best player on Norwich and his return has pulled the club into the Championship promotion race. He’s playing the best soccer of his career. His movement is excellent and he’s also combining well with his teammates. He has the ability to overtake either Pepi or Balogun. If he does, which one will he bump first?

Brandon Vazquez: After two outstanding seasons at Cincinnati, Vazquez earned an expensive move to Monterrey in Mexico and has started off well with one of the biggest teams in Liga MX. He’s probably the best aerial threat in the pool but he also has good feet. He still has tough competition in front of him, but it’s not out of the question he gets there. Perhaps he could be a good overage player for the Olympic team given that the tournament overlaps with Leagues Cup instead of Liga MX. At some point if he continues to succeed with Monterrey, he should get a real chance under Berhalter.

Haji Wright: After two successful seasons in Turkey, Wright has found success at Coventry where he now has 10 goals through February 13. He has an excellent nose for the goal but could still find it tough to return to the USMNT. He made the World Cup team in 2022 but that came after a long Pepi slump and the struggles of Jordan Pefok to fit into the team. But things are only harder now to make the team. Pepi isn’t struggling anymore. Balogun is a project but one with an upside. Then after them, Berhalter will probably prefer Sargent and possibly Vazquez based on style. On the other hand, Wright is in a promotional race and can still force Berhalter’s hand with continued output.  

Jordan Pefok: the French-American Pefok had a tough run in the fall of 2022 and it lasted for over a year. But he’s been in better form for Borussia Monchengladbach the past two months scoring goals. Berhalter has mentioned him as being in consideration for call-ups, but it’s only harder now with Wright, Sargent, and Vazquez also taking big steps. When looking at the history of things, the path seems hard for Pefok with the USMNT. He struggled to get into the picture last cycle when he was playing well and Berhalter was adamant about looking for a striker who fit a certain profile. He’s not playing as well now, while others who probably fit that profile are playing better.

Jesus Ferreira: There are a lot of issues with Ferreira now. There was a failed move to Russia in January, and there is still talk of him wanting to move to Europe as he continues to play well for Dallas. But through it, there are more positional concerns. With every year, it just seems clearer that he’s a better second forward, not as a true No. 9. Dallas realized this and went out and bought a big-time No. 9 with Petar Musa. The hope is that Ferreira will now play behind Musa as a second striker. The problem is that this role doesn’t really exist on the USMNT. Even if Ferreira moves to Europe and plays well, it probably won’t fix the issues of how he would fit into the USMNT, unless Berhalter adopts a different formation that includes a second striker. Then Ferreira’s return would make sense.


Pushing the pool


Duncan McGuire: 2023 was a great year for McGuire who went from getting drafted out of Creighton and into a 15-goal scorer for Orlando City. Once season doesn’t give us enough to project his ceiling, but he is the leading age-eligible forward in the Olympic pool (not including those who are with the USMNT). Blackburn’s paperwork incompetence saw a loan for McGuire collapse at the January deadline, but if McGuire can return to Orlando and continue to score while also having a good Olympic tournament, he will open better doors than Blackburn. It’s still early in his career, but all the steps so far have been positive.

Nicholas Gioacchini: In 2021, Gioacchini was in the picture with the USMNT and he won silverware at the Gold Cup that year. But his career hit a tough point with struggles at Caen, Montpellier, and then Orlando. But St. Louis was a great place for him to revive his career and he scored 10 goals in helping them finish first in the Western Conference. That season saw him earn a transfer to Como, who are in a promotion race in Serie B. The USMNT player pool is crowded at the No. 9 but getting onto the field for Como to help them get into Serie A, and then playing there is a path. A lot has to go right for him, but at least it’s a path.

Kahveh Zahiroleslam: The former Yale University Bulldog has been a surprising story that has seemingly come out of nowhere – but that shows you how quick things can change at striker. Zahiroslem was very good but not an elite college player (like McGuire, who won the Hermann Trophy) but he got a trial with St. Truiden in Belgium, was offered a contract, and now he starts for them where he has four goals and one assist in 903 minutes in the Belgian First Division. Then he has another goal in 43 minutes in the Belgian Cup. Most of his goals and assists have been in recent performances as he is improving. It’s a small sample size, but it’s promising, and he could get a look with the U.S. U-23 look soon. On the other hand, he might also opt to play for Iran.


Deeper in the pool


As we know, things can change quickly. Last year, who was thinking about McGuire or Zahiroleslam? But here we are. And who is to say there is a forward in college, MLS Next, Next Pro, or even USL that will make similar waves in 2024 and 2025?

Among those who are playing first team soccer, Brian White puts up huge numbers for Vancouver but almost all of his goals are very close to goal, and he could run into the same problems as Pefok where it might not be what Berhalter is looking for. The same goes for Jeremy Ebobisse at San Jose who now regularly puts up double digits in scoring. Both White and Ebobisse are far down the chart, but they’re good, veteran players who are somewhere on the chart who could fill in if it came to it.

Among the younger options at the youth levels, after McGuire and Zahiroslem, the other U-23 No. 9 options who are playing are Johan Gomez at Eintracht Braunschweig (who has been called up twice) and Charlie Kelman at Wigan. Matthew Hoppe is back at Middlesbrough after a loan to San Jose but his status at various clubs over the past three years has been tough to decipher. At the U-20 level, Kristian Fletcher is likely to start the cycle as the top No. 9 option.




Long term, nothing is settled and players are still trying to find their level and find a way to fit into the USMNT so that club success can translate to the international level. Balogun is trying to get back to the same level he was at last season at Reims. Pepi is trying to prove he will ready to carry PSV’s offense after de Jong. Sargent and Wright are aiming for promotion and then open the door to the Premier League (the second time for Sargent).

Short term for the Nations League and the Copa America, the best guess is that it is a three-player race for two spots among Balogun, Pepi, and now Sargent. Sargent probably has the edge over Wright and Vazquez based on playing how Berhalter wants a No. 9 to play. At some point, it becomes tougher to leave Sargent off.

Vazquez, meanwhile, becomes a great Olympic overage spot due to his form and the fact a release becomes more likely due to the tournament overlapping with Leagues Cup instead of Liga MX. There he would play with McGuire as the team’s other No. 9.

But if Sargent overtakes Pepi or Balogun, would either of those two consider the Olympics? There are questions about Balogun’s eligibility given the nature of the U-21 games he played for England (they were part of Olympic qualification in Europe) but perhaps Pepi would? They are both age-eligible.


Get well Dike


Finally, it’s a sad topic, but Daryl Dike has ruptured his Achilles and it is the other leg compared with his last injury. It’s like his brother, Bright Dike, who tore two Achilles and an ACL in his injury-shortened career. It is sad news given not just how good Daryl is, but also what a great person he is.

Will he recover and become an impact player again? We don’t know. We can only hope so. For now, you can’t put him in the picture but you can leave the light on for him in 2025.


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