Pressing World Cup Question for U.S.: Who’ll Score the Goals?

COLOGNE, Germany — Evaluating any soccer player, with all the multifaceted layers of performance, all the twists and turns of action on the field, poses a complicated challenge. Yet the game’s strikers are so frequently reduced to a kind of rudimentary binary:

Are they scoring goals or not?

As the United States men’s soccer team gathered this week to train and play their final two exhibition matches before the World Cup begins in November, the state of the team’s strikers — the internal competition, the ongoing uncertainty over whom the team could call upon in two months — highlighted the broader anxiety and excitement of the current moment in world soccer.

There are, everyone realizes, precious few moments left to impress coaches. After a game Friday against Japan in Düsseldorf, Germany, the United States will face Saudi Arabia on Tuesday night in Spain. After that, the next time the team will be together in the same city will be in Qatar, only days before its World Cup opener on Nov. 21 against Wales.

For the American strikers, that means this final camp represents one last chance to claim a starting job that has effectively been up for grabs for more than a year. Josh Sargent got the first chance. Then came Jordan Pefok. Ricardo Pepi got a long look after an early scoring burst in qualifying, but as the tournament wound on others cycled in, too. Jesus Ferreira. Gyasi Zardes. Pepi again.

Ricardo Pepi, center, with Jesus Ferreira before a World Cup qualifier in March. Both have been given a chance in the No. 9 role.Credit…Moises Castillo/Associated Press

The concern is that no one forward has risen above the rest to claim the No. 9 role wholly as his own. Less than a year ago, the problem was that no American striker seemed to be playing particularly well for his club. The problem now may be a more welcome one: Essentially all the contenders for the job seem in recent weeks to have found something close to their top form.

Sargent, for example, already has six goals for his English club, Norwich City. Pepi recently scored his first after a loan to a club in the Dutch Eredivisie. Pefok’s Union Berlin is, surprisingly, leading the Bundesliga. But scoring for the United States, as all of them know, has proved considerably more difficult to replicate, at least up front: Of the 18 goals scored by the Americans in their 14 qualifying games, only four came from a forward playing a traditional striker’s role.

Coach Gregg Berhalter has identified at least a half dozen strikers ahead of his final roster selection — a group that includes Ferreira, Pefok, Pepi, Sargent, Brandon Vazquez and Haji Wright — and is expected to whittle the list down to three. Given the heated nature of the positional battles — and the stakes of securing, or missing out on, a World Cup place — Berhalter said on Thursday that he had noticed some understandable nerves and anxiety within the team as a whole in the early days of training.

“There’s a slight hint of it — it’s not something palpable that you can feel — but you see a couple guys are tight in some exercises,” Berhalter said. The coaching staff has tried, perhaps in vain, to put everyone at ease, he said. “The message is, ‘Go do your thing, and let the chips fall where they may.’”

Josh Sargent, center, has six goals for Norwich City this season.Credit…Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters
Jordan Pefok, who is not in camp, has helped Union Berlin into first place in the Bundesliga.Credit…Hendrik Schmidt/DPA, via Associated Press

The goals that did come from strikers in qualifying were not shared widely. Pepi tallied three in over two games in September and October but then faded out of the picture after struggling following a January transfer. Ferreira scored in the second-to-last game of the qualifying tournament, a 5-1 rout of Panama.

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Ferreira, 21, who had a four-goal performance in a match this June, has been perhaps the steadiest, if not the most spectacular, performer of late.

In an interview this week, he opened up about the pressure of competition for spots and how his past struggles on the field had affected his mental health. The spotlight of playing around the penalty area seems to make strikers most susceptible to armchair psychoanalysis. But the singular nature of the job’s expectations can weigh on a player as well.

“I’ve always had a problem with my mood,” Ferreira said. “When some things don’t go my way on the field or I mess up, I kind of tend to shut down, and I knew that from the beginning.”

But Ferreira has thrived this year, scoring 18 goals in 31 matches for F.C. Dallas in M.L.S. He attributed that recent run of good form in part to his work with a sports psychologist who has helped him focus on positive aspects of his game and not let himself get overly focused on goals — or the absence of them.

The ebb and flow of form highlighted by Ferreira could be plainly observed in Sargent, too. When the Americans began the final round of their World Cup qualifying campaign last year, Sargent seemed to be Berhalter’s preferred striker. He started two of the team’s first three games in September, but he failed to make an impact and was not a factor for the rest of the qualifying tournament.

At the time, Sargent was playing out of position for a Norwich City team tumbling toward relegation from the Premier League. This season, in the second-tier Championship, Sargent has found his groove with six goals in 10 games.

“My confidence is at an all-time high at the moment,” Sargent said. “I’m just trying to keep that momentum going as long as possible and keep scoring goals.”

Berhalter had struggled to get a read on Sargent, 22, during his last club season. His team was struggling, and he was often playing in a wider and more defensive role as it was overwhelmed by better rivals. In recent weeks, he has been returned to the No. 9 position that both he and the American staff preferred for him, and the goals have returned.

Berhalter said he was pleased to see him experience a personal resurgence, pointing out the refinement of late in Sargent’s movement off the ball and the contact and placement of his shots.

“As a coaching staff, we felt for him,” Berhalter said. “We were watching these games, and we felt bad. It’s not nice to have to watch that.” He added, “Now he’s gotten these chances, these opportunities, and he’s producing.”

When Sargent failed to produce early in qualifying, it was Pepi who took advantage, briefly claiming the position. But he soon began to struggle, too, while trying to find his footing after leaving M.L.S. for Germany. Last week, Pepi, 19, scored for Groningen of the Dutch league to end a personal 30-game scoreless drought.

“I’m happy he’s back in his goal-scoring form,” Ferreira said of Pepi.

Coach Gregg Berhalter’s job gets much easier with a reliable scorer up front.Credit…Martin Meissner/Associated Press

How will the roster be finalized? A player’s wider body of work matters. But for strikers, more than anyone, current form — measured most plainly, but not exclusively, in goals — seems to carry a significant amount of weight.

“All I could say to them is that, you know, perform the best you can with your clubs, keep trying to score goals, and we’ll evaluate it, and we’ll try to get it right to help the team,” Berhalter said. “We may not get it right. You know, that’s part of it also. We may make mistakes.”

Any focus on club form could keep the door open for Pefok, Vasquez and Wright, who were not invited to this camp. In the end, though, whoever emerges on the final roster in November, and whoever gets the call for the World Cup opener against Wales, will have endured a crucible of internal competition.

“We’re a brotherhood, we’re a family, but we’re also here to compete,” said midfielder Weston McKennie, one of the players whose place at the World Cup feels assured. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world. You can be friends off the field, but when it comes to on the field, you’re going for my position, I’m going for your position.”

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