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DeCourcy: Ricardo Pepi ranks as USMNT’s best choice at forward after World Cup qualifying heroics

This has been a good week for U.S. men’s national team forwards.

Jordan Pefok, who plays for Swiss club BSC Young Boys, scored the biggest goal of his career: a stoppage-time game-winner to beat Manchester United in the opening match of the UEFA Champions League group stage. Meanwhile, 18-year-old Ricardo Pepi continues on his tear. He has a goal and an assist in two games since returning to his FC Dallas club side following his World Cup qualifying heroics.

Pefok’s goal should steal back some of the buzz that was building around the younger Pepi, who was directly involved in each of the USA’s goals in a 4-1 comeback victory over Honduras that got the Americans’ World Cup qualifying campaign back on track. He was the first American player in 17 years to score in a qualifier on his international debut and the second-youngest goal scorer in the program’s World Cup qualifying history.

The reaction to that Pepi performance might have been more overwhelming than his play. Many who witnessed it called for Pepi’s immediate promotion to the top of the USMNT striker group as the team takes its five points and third-place standing on CONCACAF’s 14-game qualifying tournament into the next set of matches in October against Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica.

MORE: CONCACAF World Cup qualifying schedule & standings

The enthusiasm — or is it desperation? — is understandable.

For one, the position of striker or center forward is the highest-profile on a soccer team and the one with the most obvious measure of success: goals. There is so much more to the position, especially in the modern game, but a player at that spot who regularly puts the ball into the net can have a lot of other issues forgiven.

Also, getting at the front of this line might not be such an impressive journey.

Players like Pefok, Josh Sargent, and Daryl Dike have been unable to establish themselves as the USMNT’s primary choice at the position. Although each has made contributions to the USA’s success in 2021, they’ve not consistently produced goals or possession, sometimes through their own fault, sometimes for lack of assistance from teammates. They’ve scored a combined three goals for the USMNT in 2021.

The USMNT has not had an obvious choice at this position since Jozy Altidore it from 2009-17, ending with the team’s failed qualification campaign for the 2018 World Cup. Prior to Altidore (third all-time in goals with 42), such players as Brian McBride (fifth with 30 goals) and Eric Wynalda (fourth with 34 goals) were fixtures there. But it’s notable the players who are tied for the career lead in goals, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey (57 goals), were versatile players who filled roles in midfield and the forward line.

So when someone like Pepi delivers a performance like he did in Honduras, at age 18 and under enormous pressure to help rescue the USMNT from a qualifying disaster in its opening three matches, he naturally is going to become the favorite of a large segment of the team’s fans.

“I think he did a great job,” coach Gregg Berhalter said following the game. “He worked tirelessly, competed against a physical set of center backs and scored a really good goal and overall, I think, had a strong performance. For an 18-year-old, it was really impressive what he did.”

The key question is this: With it being unlikely that any one player would start all three games in October, when might be the best time for the U.S. to use its best forward option? On the road in Panama (Oct. 10), which is a close competitor for a qualifying spot? Or home against Jamaica (Oct. 7), a floundering team against which the U.S. cannot afford to drop points?

The candidates in order of preference:

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1. Ricardo Pepi

Age: 18

Club: FC Dallas (Major League Soccer)

USMNT caps: 1

USMNT goals: 1

Pepi showed a versatility in the Honduras game that has been lacking from others. He dropped deep to help win the ball beyond midfield, slip it to Christian Pulisic and then racing to make himself available for the cross that was deflected to Antonee Robinson for his goal. He rose above a defender for a point-perfect header off a cross from right back DeAndre Yedlin. He unselfishly fed Aaronson with a square ball for the third goal of the game. Perhaps a start against Jamaica to help Pepi build confidence is wise, then deciding how to use him in the second and third games based on his performance.

(Getty Images)

2. Jordan Pefok

Age: 25

Club: BSC Young Boys (Swiss Super League)

USMNT caps: 8

USMNT goals: 1

Pefok is relatively new to the U.S. player pool after catching the staff’s attention with a breakout season at Young Boys in Switzerland, with 12 goals in 32 games. Including the goal against Manchester United, he has already scored seven times in 12 games this season across all competitions. Pefok presented a strong sub performance, perhaps underrated, in the 0-0 draw at El Salvador but was not as impactful as a starter in a 1-1 tie at home against Canada. He may be best suited as a change-the-game substitute.

(Getty Images)

3. Josh Sargent

Age: 21

Club: Norwich City (English Premier League)

USMNT caps: 19

USMNT goals: 5

Sargent showed real life playing on the right side of a front three in Norwich’s opener against Liverpool in August, and he scored his first two goals in England before the month was out, playing in an EFL Cup game. But he has struggled this year to translate his play at the club level to the national team scene. All his international goals were scored in 2018 and 2019, and neither has he been effective in linking possession. There is too much promise for anyone to grow too impatient, and he may have more ability to play on the outside of a front three (in his case, on the right), which means he could play together with any of the others.

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4. Daryl Dike

Age: 21

Club: Orlando City (Major League Soccer)

USMNT caps: 8

USMNT goals: 3

Dike became a sensation with his play after being loaned to Barnsley in England’s Championship. He scored nine goals in 19 games as Barnsley made it to the cusp of promotion to the Premier League. It was thought he might be transferred or loaned again, but he is back with Orlando City and has a goal and an assist in his first three starts since returning from an injury layoff following his multi-week stay with the Gold Cup winners. There still is much to polish about his game, though he may have more potential than any of these players but Pepi. It’s just hard to see him getting time over the other three unless he goes on a tear in MLS over the next month.