Sports

The fight for the USMNT’s #9 spot moves to the European theater


USMNT’s Ricardo Pepi is headed to Augsburg of the Bundesliga.

USMNT’s Ricardo Pepi is headed to Augsburg of the Bundesliga.
Image: Getty Images

As it’s always been (and sometimes it feels always will be) that the one big hole on the US Men’s international team is the one up top, a central striker. You never want to be in a place where you’re wondering if there’s any way to make Jozy Altidore 10 years younger. It’s Jozy Altidore, after all. But such were the options. Alex Morgan five years younger? This is where we’re at, and it’s dark, cold, and lonely.

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The latest battle for that particular shirt took a turn yesterday, as both Ricardo Pepi and Daryl Dike, reportedly, struck transfers to head overseas permanently. It’s not much of a shock for Pepi, who stormed onto the national team scene in the fall with his performances against Honduras and Jamaica, but since then had been more functional than inspirational.

Still, at just 18, and now heading over to Germany to play for Augsburg for the price of $20 million–the second highest ever out of MLS and the second-highest for an American–it’s hard to tamp down the excitement that Pepi’s meteoric rise starting last spring has generated. Pepi only became a regular starter for FC Dallas this past season, and potted 13 goals for what was a pretty wretched side. Again, there is much to mold from a still very raw form given his age, but the complete package is in there somewhere. Pepi has the finish, what he needs is the team play. He still struggles to create and link in attacks when he’s not finishing them.

Still, one can’t help but wonder if Augsburg is the right setting for Pepi, at least right now. This is something of the Josh Sargent corollary, the player Pepi has basically booted out of the US squad and Dike hopes to. Transferring to a struggling club isn’t always the best stage for a forward, where chances are going to be thin and one spends most of the time chasing the ball. Augsburg are just above the relegation spots in the Bundesliga, and they’re one of the more putrid attacking teams in the league (3rd to last in expected goals, 2nd last in shots per game, 3rd last in shots on target per game). To boot, Augsburg hardly ever press high up the field, another strength of Pepi’s game. There’s no question that Augsburg need some juice up top, but Pepi is going to have to master making the most out of the scraps he gets as far as chances.

Dike hasn’t been able to crack the USMNT’s qualifying roster, and has yet to appear in a qualifying game. But as Pepi has proved, you can move from out by the toolshed to the dining room in no time at all, given the paucity of choices Greg Berhalter has as center forward. And he did start the last four games of the Gold Cup, so he’s at last in the orbit.

Dike will be moving to West Brom in England’s Championship, the second division. There, he’ll play for the same manager who brought him on loan to Barnsley last year, Valérian Ismaël. So we know he’ll get every opportunity.

And while it may look askew to say that Dike has the same ability to impress in a second division while Pepi heads to a top five league, Dike is headed to a team playing well. Though unfortunately for him, he might run into some of the same problems with The Baggies. While they sit right in the middle of the promotion playoff spots in the table (4th place), they also can’t manage a piss-up in a brewery when it comes to scoring. They have just 30 goals in 24 games. However, the difference is West Brom don’t need help even getting the chances, they just need someone to finish them. They generate the second-most shots and shots on target per game in the division, they just don’t have a striker who can hit a bull in the ass with a banjo aside from Karlan Grant. And he has one goal since the start of November.

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Dike put up nine goals in the Championship last season in just 19 games for Barnsley, though he scored on 70 percent of the shots he put on target then. Still, the amount of shots he put on target didn’t wane when he came back to MLS and Orlando, so if he can manage anything like his marksmanship last spring, he might just fire West Brom back to the Premier League. And it won’t take much to launch any striker back into the USMNT picture.

Overall, it’s always a good thing when more USMNT players are exported to Europe, and Pepi’s $20 million price tag certainty catches the eye. If the US ever wants to make serious noise, they’ll have to solve this problem at some point. Hopefully, this is yet another step in the direction of doing so.

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