Tactical rehearsals await Berhalter's USA in final warm-ups before Qatar

Tactical rehearsals await Berhalter’s USA in final warm-ups before Qatar

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<p><figcaption class=Photograph: Moises Castillo/AP

It was a run-of-the-mill kind of goal: a header from outside the six-yard box, perfectly wide into the far corner. More notable than the finish was the identity of the scorer and what it could mean for the US men’s team as it plays its last two games before the World Cup in Qatar, beginning with a friendly against Japan on Friday.

Ricardo Pepi was named MLS Young Player of the Year after scoring 13 times for FC Dallas in 2021. US head coach Gregg Berhalter had reason to be grateful for the teenager’s lethal form last September when Pepi scored on his international debut and provided two assists as the Americans rallied from a 1-0 deficit to beat Honduras 4-1 in San Pedro Sula.

Related: North American Players in Europe: The Best XI, from Davies to Wingo

That was the US’s third game in Concacaf qualifying. Only the top two were tied and Berhalter’s job security would have come under intense scrutiny had he lost to the weakest team in the group. Instead, the US beat Jamaica 2-0 in October and the Texan scored both goals in Austin to cement his status as a rising star.

As Pepi raced to the corner flag to the adulation of the crowd and his teammates after sending a low cross into the net in the 62nd minute, no one would have imagined that he would not celebrate again for almost a year.

Pepi’s goal for FC Groningen against Sparta Rotterdam last Saturday ended an astonishing run of 30 games and 345 days without scoring for the striker. He joined Augsburg in January for a transfer fee of more than $20 million, but the drought continued and the Bundesliga side sent him to the Eredivisie last month on a season-long loan.

The 19-year-old went from essential to optional (he hasn’t played for the USA since March), but Berhalter called him up for Friday’s game against Japan in Düsseldorf and Tuesday’s game against Saudi Arabia in Murcia even before the Groningen goal. , citing a desire to boost the striker’s confidence.

Not surprisingly, Berhalter feels a certain loyalty to a player who played a big role in qualifying. The inclusion of him despite the barren career is also a reflection of the lack of high caliber proven options in the centre-forward, which remains one of the biggest question marks in the lineup as Qatar looms. Jesus Ferreira of FC Dallas is the presumed favorite to start when it matters. This year the 21-year-old has shown that he is a prolific goalscorer who offers more on the play than Pepi.

Josh Sargent is also in contention after a strong start to the season with Norwich City following a dismal 2021-22, although Berhalter will have to analyze the extent to which the 22-year-old’s better performances are the result of lesser-quality opponents afterwards. of Norwich’s relegation from the Premier League.

New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone, left, swaps jerseys with Gregg Berhalter during the US head coach’s visit to Yankee Stadium earlier this month. Photograph: Adam Hunger/AP

Given that Jordan Pefok is in scoring form in the Bundesliga with Union Berlin, his omission from the list indicates that his World Cup prospects are remote, although Berhalter wanted to emphasize to reporters that “a lot can happen between now and 9 of November”. That’s the date the US plans to submit the final roster, 12 days before it kicks off against Wales. The United States also faces England and Iran in Group B.

That’s not just the usual coverage and caution of a manager who wants to keep all his options open, but an acknowledgment that this group of players, while young, have frequently been plagued by ill health during their tenure. “A lot can happen between the 9th and the [Fifa deadline of the] 14,” Berhalter added, a note that sounded more realistic than pessimistic given the USA’s injury history and the vagaries of an unprecedented winter World Cup.

Forward Tim Weah, midfielder Yunus Musah and left-back Antonee Robinson, who are likely to be on the plane to Qatar if fit, are injured and not in the current squad. Goalkeeper Zack Steffen was also out with injury but played for Middlesbrough last Saturday.

Berhalter will have to choose between Steffen, who has had some tough times this year but plays regularly, albeit in the English second tier, or Matt Turner, a more solid player who is a substitute for Arsenal and has only made one appearance this season. .

Another problematic position is center back, but the next two games may not provide clarity on who will partner Nashville’s Walker Zimmerman in Qatar as two top contenders, Cameron Carter-Vickers (Celtic) and Chris Richards ( Crystal Palace) are also sidelined Not that this has opened the door for Benfica’s John Brooks or Fulham’s Tim Ream, veterans who are too slow for a manager who is molding his team to be young and dynamic.

So with two months to go before the World Cup kicks off, the USA’s final warm-ups may be mostly useful as tests of strength against two other qualified nations, tactical rehearsals, and establishing who is likely to fill the reserve spots at the list instead of giving Berhalter a chance. to confirm the last three or four names in his definitive preferred starting eleven.

The next 180 minutes could at least give the coach a clearer idea of ​​whether he prefers Gio Reyna or Brenden Aaronson as a midfielder or attacking winger. The most intriguing question of all, however, is whether Pepi is about to enjoy a rebirth at the perfect time. There’s only a small sample size for a player early in his career, but he tended to score in groups last year. If his long-awaited goal last weekend turns out to be the first of many, or at least a few, then Berhalter may have a very welcome selection dilemma ahead of him.

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