Jordan Pefok is still out of the USMNT ahead of its last World Cup tune-up games
A striker who might be the best pure finisher in the player pool hasn’t earned a recall to the squad despite playing well for the first-place team in Germany's Bundesliga.
After announcing the U.S. men’s soccer team’s roster for its last games before the World Cup, manager Gregg Berhalter insisted that the door isn’t closed to anyone who did not make the 26-player squad.
But it seems that when Jordan Pefok reached the door, a hinge got stuck.
A striker who might be the best pure finisher in the player pool still hasn’t earned a recall to the squad, six months after his last national team appearance.
Pefok turned a strong 2021-22 season for Switzerland’s Young Boys — 27 goals in 45 games, including a game-winner at Manchester United in the Champions League — into a $6.25 million move this summer to Germany’s Union Berlin. He has fit right in there, with three goals and two assists in six games, helping Union to first place in the Bundesliga.
At least Berhalter was ready for the avalanche of questions that came his way on the subject on Wednesday, in a news conference an hour after the roster release.
“There aren’t easy decisions, and I can understand that Jordan should be in consideration,” he said. “He was in consideration, major consideration. … He’s been working hard, he’s been a handful to play against, and he’s doing a lot of things right.”
Pefok isn’t the only notable absence. Elsewhere on the striker depth chart, there have been calls for FC Cincinnati’s Brandon Vazquez to get a look for his 16 goals and five assists this year.
But the former U.S. under-17 teammate of Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams hit his hot streak at the same time that longtime U.S. stalwart Josh Sargent finally regained his form at English second-division team Norwich City. Sargent has five goals and an assist in nine games this season, so it was no surprise to see him earn his first call-up since last September.
“For us, it’s comparing [Vazquez] to what we have, comparing him to other guys, and then the body of work both with his club and with us,” Berhalter said “And with us, it’s very difficult for him — he doesn’t have a body of work.”
It was somewhat surprising to see Ricardo Pepi’s name on the list. His $20 million move in January from FC Dallas to Germany’s Augsburg has been such a flop that Augsburg loaned him out to Dutch first-division team Gronigen. Now playing against worse defenses, Pepi had an assist in his debut that was his first contribution to a goal of any kind since last October.
“This is a guy that scored three goals for us in World Cup qualifying, and has had a tough time since then,” Berhalter said. “We’re trying to get him confidence, we’re trying to get him into the group and see if he can make a push for the final roster. It’s TBD right now.”
Berhalter undoubtedly likes Pepi, and it was a big hint when he said, “We just weren’t willing to give all that [past success] up right now.”
‘That’s our decision’
But Berhalter was blunt that the 19-year-old faces a challenge.
“You can see that he can be dominant in the Dutch league,” he said. “Now it’s a question of if he actually is, and can he really take his game to the next level?”
He also indicated that Pepi’s call-up may have come at Pefok’s expense.
“It was a decision that we weren’t going to bring in four forwards — we didn’t feel like we had enough game time to get four forwards an opportunity,” Berhalter said. “We’re pretty confident we know what Jordan can do. … We opted for someone else in this camp. And that’s our decision.”
As for other absences, starting left back Antonee “Jedi” Robinson (England’s Fulham) and potential starting right winger Tim Weah (France’s Lille) are nursing minor ankle injuries. So Berhalter will let them stay home.
Goalkeeper Zack Steffen, a potential World Cup starter, has been dealing with a knee injury. Berhalter said the Downingtown native recently got a plasma injection to help it heal. But there are also concerns around Steffen’s club, Middlesbrough of England’s second division, that he hasn’t earned the starting job after arriving on loan from Manchester City this summer.
When Berhalter was asked if he’s concerned about Steffen still having to compete for minutes, he took the answer in his own direction.
“I hope he’s fighting for a starting position,” Berhalter said. “You want guys that have to compete to get on the field, that’s what makes them stronger. With Zack, it’s more a question of, in my opinion, his health … We expect him to be on the field shortly.”
Berhalter also said that even if Steffen is healthy enough to travel to the camp but not play in games, he’ll have Steffen stay in England.
“I think the important thing, and this is a conversation I’ve had with him, is to stay in his daily environment [and] work every single day to get back on the field,” he said. “I really think that’s the best option for him right now to give him the best possible chance to make the World Cup team.”
The U.S. will play Japan in Düsseldorf, Germany, on Sept. 23 (8:26 a.m., ESPN2, Unimás, TUDN, ESPN+) and Saudi Arabia in Murcia, Spain, on Sept. 27 (2 p.m., FS1, UniMáss, TUDN). Matt Turner, the No. 2 goalkeeper at England’s Arsenal, will probably start at least one of the games, and split time with Ethan Horvath (England’s Luton Town) and Sean Johnson (New York City FC).
Berhalter will announce the World Cup team on Nov. 9, five days before FIFA’s official deadline, at an event in New York.
USMNT September roster
Goalkeepers (3): Ethan Horvath (Luton Town, England), Sean Johnson (New York City FC), Matt Turner (Arsenal, England)
Defenders (9): Reggie Cannon (Boavista, Portugal), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Celtic, Scotland), Sergiño Dest (AC Milan, Italy), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Chris Richards (Crystal Palace, England), Joe Scally (Borussia Mönchengladbach, Germany), Sam Vines (Royal Antwerp, Belgium), DeAndre Yedlin (Inter Miami), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC)
Midfielders (6): Kellyn Acosta (Los Angeles FC), Tyler Adams (Leeds United, England), Luca de la Torre (Celta Vigo, Spain), Weston McKennie (Juventus, Italy), Yunus Musah (Valencia, Spain), Malik Tillman (Rangers, Scotland)
Forwards (8): Brenden Aaronson (Leeds United, England), Paul Arriola (FC Dallas), Jesús Ferreira (FC Dallas), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Ricardo Pepi (Groningen, Netherlands), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea, England), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund, Germany), Josh Sargent (Norwich City, England)