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Jesús Ferreira embraces the pressure of leading the USMNT’s striker depth chart

U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter raves about the 21-year-old from FC Dallas. Ferreira says he's happy Berhalter "believes in me and trusts in me." Will the nice words translate to goals at the World Cup?

Jesús Ferreira is on course to be the U.S. men's soccer team's starting striker at this fall's World Cup.
Jesús Ferreira is on course to be the U.S. men's soccer team's starting striker at this fall's World Cup.Read moreJulio Cortez / AP

Time and again, U.S. men’s soccer team manager Gregg Berhalter has extolled the virtues of sticking with his tactical system, especially when it comes to the attacking end of the field.

And time and again this year, those extollings have culminated in one name: Jesús Ferreira.

“He checks all those boxes in terms of what his skill set is,” Berhalter said last week when he named the roster for this month’s final World Cup tune-ups.

“We don’t judge him just based on goals,” Berhalter said after Ferreira had some glaring misses in major June friendlies against Morocco and Uruguay, then scored four times against lowly Grenada a few days later.

Most famously, before that Grenada game, Berhalter called Ferreira “a pressing animal.” The message seemed as much about one player as all the others in the pool.

On Tuesday, Ferreira held court with the media over Zoom from the U.S. team’s training camp in Cologne, Germany. That gave the chance to ask the man himself what he thinks of all that praise from Berhalter, and the pressure that comes with it.

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“I’m happy that he believes in me and trusts in me to be the No. 9 that can finish and can help in the buildup and play the system that he believes in,” Ferreira said. “So for me, it’s just coming in and proving to him that I can play and I can be that No. 9 that he needs for the system that he wants.”

‘Joy in the field’

Ferreira’s success as a striker has been all the more notable because the 21-year-old didn’t play the position as a youth prospect. The son of former FC Dallas playmaker David Ferreira was an attacking midfielder or withdrawn forward, behind whoever was up top.

So it was no surprise to hear Ferreira cite Brazil’s Gabriel Jesus and Argentina’s Sergio Agüero as strikers he looks up to: “No. 9s that would drop down and help in the buildup and would score goals and assist and do everything.”

Coincidentally, the player Ferreira ran behind at FC Dallas for 2½ years was Ricardo Pepi. When Pepi moved to Germany’s Augsburg for $20 million at the end of 2021, Ferreira moved up top. And when Pepi went bust abroad, Ferreira ran by him on the U.S. depth chart. He’s got 18 goals and five assists for Dallas this season, and five goals in eight national team games this year.

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“For me to switch positions and play more of a finisher role now, I’m excited,” Ferreira said, “because that’s something that always brings me joy in the field.”

But the national team stats are a little deceptive. He scored one of those five goals in a late-March World Cup qualifier against Panama, but didn’t score in the other five qualifiers he played in (albeit often as a second-half sub).

Then came those June friendlies, which had a bright spotlight because they were the U.S. team’s last big home games before the World Cup. Ferreira’s misses thus drew quite a bit of scrutiny.

So when Berhalter started Ferreira again against Grenada, many outsiders grumbled. The chorus continued until late in the first half, when he finally scored — then piled in three more goals in the second half.

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At this point, questions about Ferreira’s form and fit are settled. It’s more about whether he’ll be the starter in Qatar. He’s the favorite as of now, but could be overtaken if Josh Sargent stays hot in England. Or if Pepi finally takes off during his loan to Dutch club Groningen. He’s got an assist and a goal in his first two games, which must thrill Berhalter after he picked Pepi over Jordan Pefok for this month’s camp.

If fans expect a soccer team’s leading striker to be a big talker, similar to some brash wide receivers on football teams, they won’t get that with Ferreira. But while he’s soft-spoken, he has plenty to say. That includes speaking openly about working on his mental health during the months when he wasn’t scoring.

“There was a lot of pressure on myself and from myself, and I needed to focus on clearing that out of my mind, making sure that I knew that goals will come,” he said. “I’ve always had a problem with my mood — 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. I have coaches that would help me out with that and give me things that would help me moving from that quickly, but I knew that I needed more help to make sure I can move it really fast.”

Ferreira said the sports psychologist he now works with “understands soccer, and he understands the position that I am in, so I’m happy that he can help me where I need to be helped.”

It has paid off lately, and it could soon pay off on the biggest stage of all.

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