Tactical rehearsals await Berhalter’s USA in the last warm-ups before Qatar: Box, expertly glancing the ball low and wide of the far corner from six yards out.
Credit – https://www.theguardian.com/
More interesting than the actual score was who scored it and what that might indicate for the United States men’s national team. It is in their final two games before the World Cup in Qatar, starting with Friday’s friendly against Japan.
Ricardo Pepi of FC Dallas scored 13 goals in 2021, earning him the title of MLS Young Player of the Year.
Teenager Pepi’s deadly form gave US head coach Gregg Berhalter reason to be thankful last September when the United States overcame a 1-0 deficit to overcome Honduras 4-1 in San Pedro Sula.
For the United States, that was their third Concacaf qualifying match.
They split the first two, and losing the poorest team in the group would have jeopardized Berhalter’s career. Instead, the United States beat Jamaica 2-0 in October, and the Texan scored both goals in Austin, furthering his star status.
After directing a cross low into the net in the 62nd minute, Pepi rushed towards the corner flag to accept the crowd’s and his teammates’ admiration.
At the time, nobody could have predicted that he would not celebrate again for over a year.
Pepi scored the winning goal for FC Groningen in their match against Sparta Rotterdam last Saturday, breaking a record-breaking scoreless skid of 30 games and 345 days.
A transfer cost of more than $20 million was rumoured to have been involved in his January move to Augsburg, but after a goalless stretch, the Bundesliga club loaned him out to the Eredivisie for the rest of the season.
Even before the Groningen goal, Berhalter included the 19-year-old in the team for the games on Friday against Japan in Düsseldorf and Tuesday against Saudi Arabia in Murcia, citing a desire to improve the striker’s confidence.
Berhalter’s dedication to a player who played a key part in qualification is understandable. The dearth of proven high-quality options at center forward is one of the major question areas in the lineup with Qatar looming, and his inclusion despite the dry run is a reflection of that.
FC Dallas’ Jess Ferreira is the team’s best option to start in crucial matches. The 21-year-old has proven himself to be a goal-scoring machine who contributes more to the team in the buildup than Pepi has thus far this season.
Although Berhalter must determine how much of 22-year-old Josh Sargent’s improved performances are attributable to lower-quality opponents following Norwich City’s relegation from the Premier League, Sargent is in the running after a strong start to the season with Norwich City following a dismal 2021-22.
Although Berhalter quickly reminds reporters that “a lot can happen between now and November 9,” Jordan Pefok’s absence from the list indicates that his World Cup prospects are remote given his scoring form in the Bundesliga with Union Berlin.
On that day, 12 days before the match versus Wales, the United States plans to release its final roster. The United States is in Group B with England and Iran.
That’s not just the customary coyness of a coach who wants to leave his options open; it’s also a recognition that, despite its youth, this group of players has been repeatedly disrupted by health problems during his tenure.
Given the United States’ injury history and the unpredictability of a winter World Cup, Berhalter’s observation that “a lot can happen between the 9th and the [Fifa deadline of the] 14th” sounded more reasonable than negative.
Despite being healthy, forward Tim Weah, midfielder Yunus Musah, and left defender Antonee Robinson are not with the current team and will not travel to Qatar.
Zack Steffen, the team’s goalkeeper, was also sidelined due to injury but saw action for Middlesbrough the previous week.
Berhalter must decide between Steffen, who has struggled at times but has been playing consistently (although in England’s second division), and Matt Turner.
He is more reliable but has only made one appearance for Arsenal this year.
Another concern is at center defense, where both Cameron Carter-Vickers (Celtic) and Chris Richards (Crystal Palace) are out with injuries. The next two games may not provide any light on who will start with Nashville’s Walker Zimmerman in Qatar.
Benfica’s John Brooks and Fulham’s Tim Ream, two veterans too slow for a coach who is molding his team to be young and energetic, have not been given a chance.
Thus, with two months until the start of the World Cup, the final warm-ups may be more beneficial for the United States as strength tests.
It is against two other qualified nations, tactical rehearsals, and establishing who is likely to fill reserve spots on the roster as an opportunity for Berhalter to confirm the final three or four names on his definitive preferred starting XI.
Assuming they both play equally well for the next 180 minutes, the coach should know better whether he likes Gio Reyna or Brenden Aaronson as an offensive midfielder/winger.
Perhaps the most intriguing query is whether or whether Pepi is poised to have a perfectly timed revival.
Although the sample size is tiny, he scored in bunches last season, which is typical for a rookie. If his long-awaited goal from the weekend before is the first of many (or at least some), Berhalter may soon face an enviable problem deciding who to start.