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Can Haji Wright be the U.S. men’s soccer team’s answer at striker?

Seven years after he was teammates with Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams on the U.S. under-17 team, Wright has finally arrived with the senior team. Now he's got a shot to make the World Cup team.

Haji Wright (second from left), Christian Pulisic (second from right), and Tyler Adams (right) have been friends since their teenage years. Now they're reunited on the U.S. national team.
Haji Wright (second from left), Christian Pulisic (second from right), and Tyler Adams (right) have been friends since their teenage years. Now they're reunited on the U.S. national team.Read moreJeff Dean / AP

AUSTIN, Texas — Five months before the World Cup, the U.S. men’s soccer team has a striking problem.

A pile of players has tried to claim the mantle of being the Americans’ leading forward, but none has done so.

For a while, Josh Sargent was the guy, but then he had a bad season with England’s Norwich City. Ricardo Pepi was even more the guy after a blazing start to World Cup qualifying, but then he lost all his momentum after a $20 million move to Germany’s Augsburg.

Jordan Pefok scored 27 goals in 45 games this season and might be the best pure finisher on the board. But he’s injured right now, and there’s a sense that he doesn’t do all the other stuff that suits U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter’s taste.

Jesús Ferreira, meanwhile, is beloved by Berhalter — “a pressing animal,” the manager said recently. But he has missed a bunch of big chances to score in the last two games, and one can only miss so many before it ought to be someone else’s turn.

Daryl Dike is hurt. Gyasi Zardes is limited and out of form. Matthew Hoppe and Nicholas Gioacchini look like flashes in the pan.

Who’s next?

A guy who had no caps before this month but still is familiar to many USMNT supporters.

‘That was the duo’

In 2015, Haji Wright was on a U.S. under-17 World Cup team that included current senior squad teammates Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, and Luca de la Torre. Two years later, Wright was teammates in the youth system at Germany’s Schalke 04 with Weston McKennie.

And before all that, in January 2014, Wright was such a big-time prospect that scouts from Borussia Dortmund went to watch him play for the U.S. at a tournament in Turkey. While there, the scouts took note of Pulisic — and he was the player they ended up signing.

Wright grew up in the Los Angeles Galaxy’s youth academy. Wanting to move to Europe before the Galaxy wanted to let him go, he controversially turned pro in 2015 with the modern-era New York Cosmos in the second-tier North American Soccer League. The next year, he got his big move to Schalke.

It did not work out as planned. Wright scored just one goal in seven games for Schalke’s first team. In the summer of 2019, he moved to Dutch club VVV Venlo, and a year after that to Danish club SønderjyskE — which last summer loaned him to Turkey’s Antalyaspor.

» READ MORE: Christian Pulisic’s mind is in a good place with the U.S. men’s soccer team, and so are his feet

Somehow, that move worked. Wright scored 15 goals in 35 games for Antalyaspor this past season, and the 24-year-old got on Berhalter’s radar.

Yet he had never left his friends’ radar.

“That was the duo back in the day, me and Haji,” Pulisic said.

“I’m excited to be back around him again, and see how he’s grown and how he’s developed and matured as a person,” Adams said.

Wright hadn’t forgotten about them, either.

“They’re still the same goofy guys that I knew back when we were 15, 14 years old,” he said. “We’ve always got along well, and I think they’re good people.”

» READ MORE: Malik Tillman speaks softly, but carries a big potential with the U.S. men’s soccer team

‘Like déjà vu’

Proof of this came in last week’s summer-opening 3-0 win over Morocco, when Wright played the second half. When Pulisic drew a penalty kick, Wright asked if he could take it. Pulisic said yes.

Wright said he was “really grateful” for the opportunity and for his teammates who came over to celebrate the goal with him. McKennie even ran on to the field from the bench, four and a half years after he was on the field for Wright’s lone Schalke goal.

“Like déjà vu,” Wright said. “It just feels amazing to have him there, and the rest of the guys who were celebrating with me.”

He wasn’t the only person feeling a little déjà vu. Twelve years ago, Hérculez Gómez became one of quite a few U.S. men’s players who’ve made World Cup teams without playing in qualifying. He got on a hot streak with his club team in Mexico and scored in one of the Americans’ last games before going to South Africa.

» READ MORE: Tim Weah is on the cusp of reaching the World Cup. His legendary father never got that chance.

Could Wright write the latest chapter of that history?

“He’s got a leg up on my situation and probably on a lot of different forwards that could come into the situation,” Gómez said. “Christian Pulisic isn’t just going to give up a penalty kick for anybody. He did that for a guy that he values and respects, a guy that he probably wants to see there.”

A moment later, Gómez paid a more important compliment.

“He’s just a goal scorer,” he said. “The instinctual properties of a No. 9, I see in Haji.”

Berhalter indicated after the Morocco game that he sees the same. And he signaled after Sunday’s scoreless tie with Uruguay, in which Wright played the last half hour, that Wright will get more opportunities in the upcoming Concacaf Nations League games.

The Americans host Grenada on Friday in Austin (10 p.m., UniMás, TUDN, ESPN+), then visit El Salvador on Tuesday (10 p.m., FS1, UniMás, TUDN).

“I still don’t think there’s enough of a sample size for Haji,” Berhalter said. “We’ll continue to work with him. We have two Nations League [games], and we’ll see if Jesús and Haji can hit the back of the net in those.”

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