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

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It was an unremarkable kind of goal – a header from outside the six-yard box, peeked into the far corner. More importantly is the identity of the top scorer and what that might mean for the US men’s team as they played their last two matches before the Qatar World Cup, as the friendly against Japan began on Friday.

Ricardo Pepe was named MLS Young Player of the Year after scoring 13 goals for FC Dallas in 2021. American coach Greg Berhalter had reason to be grateful for the teen’s lethal performance last September when Pepe scored in his first international game and provided critical passes. The US national team recovered from a 1-0 deficit to beat Honduras 4-1 in San Pedro Sula.

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It was the United States’ third CONCACAF qualifying match. They only drew the first two and Berhalter’s job security would have come under heavy scrutiny if they lost to the weakest team in the group. Instead, the United States beat Jamaica 2-0 in October, and Texan scored both goals in Austin to cement his place as a rising star.

As Pepi ran towards the corner flag to take the cajole of the fans and his teammates after channeling a low cross into the net in the 62nd minute, no one could have imagined that he would not celebrate again for nearly a year.

Pepe’s goal for Groningen against Sparta Rotterdam last Saturday ended a staggering 30 matches, 345 days without goals. He joined Augsburg in January for an additional $20 million transfer fee, but the drought persisted and the Bundesliga side sent him to the Eredivisie last month on a season-long loan.

The 19-year-old has gone from indispensable to player of choice – he hasn’t played for the US since March – but Berhalter called him up for Friday’s game against Japan in Dusseldorf and Tuesday’s match with Saudi Arabia in Murcia even before Groningen’s goal. Claiming his desire to enhance the confidence of the attacker.

Not surprisingly, Berhalter felt a sense of loyalty to a player who had such an important role in the playoffs. His inclusion despite the barren run is also a reflection of the lack of quality options installed in the striker’s position, which remains one of the biggest question marks in the lineup as Qatar approaches. Jesus Ferreira of FC Dallas is the favorite to start when it matters. The 21-year-old has shown this year that he is a prolific goalscorer and offers more than Pepi in construction.

Josh Sargent is also in contention after a strong start to the season with Norwich City after a dismal 2021-22, although Berhalter will have to analyze how much the 22-year-old’s performance has improved as a result of the poor quality of the rivals yet. Norwich relegated from the English Premier League.

Greg Berhalter and Aaron Boone

New York Yankees coach Aaron Boone, left, exchanges jerseys with Greg Berhalter on USA coach’s visit to Yankee Stadium earlier this month. Photo: Adam Hunger/The Associated Press

With Jordan Pivok at the top of goal-scoring level in the Bundesliga with Union Berlin, his omission from the list suggests his World Cup prospects are remote, although Berhalter was keen to assure reporters that “a lot can happen between now and November 9”. . This is the date the US plans to unveil the final roster, 12 days before it kicks off against Wales. The United States will also face England and Iran in Group B.

This is not just the usual caution and caution from a coach who wants to keep all of his options open, but an acknowledgment that this group of players, despite their young age, has been frequently disrupted by health issues during his tenure. “A lot can happen between 9 and 9 [Fifa deadline of the] Berhalter added, an observation that seemed more realistic than pessimistic given the United States’ injury history and the vicissitudes of the unprecedented Winter World Cup.

Striker Tim Weah, midfielder Younes Moussa and left-back Anthony Robinson, who would almost certainly be on the plane to Qatar if they were fit, were injured and absent from the current squad. Goalkeeper Zach Stephen was also ruled out due to injury but played for Middlesbrough last Saturday.

Berhalter will have to choose between Stephen, who has had some shaky moments this year but plays regularly, albeit in the English second tier, or Matt Turner, a more solid player who is Arsenal’s reserve and has only appeared once this season. .

The center of another problem is the center back, but the next two games may not make clear who will partner with Nashville’s Walker Zimmerman in Qatar, as two of the main contenders, Cameron Carter Vickers (Celtic) and Chris Richards (Crystal Palace) are as well. I don’t care. Not that this has opened the door for Benfica’s John Brooks or Fulham’s Tim Reem – veterans who are too slow for a coach who shapes his squad to be young and dynamic.

So, two months before the start of the World Cup, the final US warm-ups may be useful mainly as tests of strength against two other qualified nations, tactical rehearsals, and determining who is more likely to fill the reserve positions on the roster rather than giving Berhalter a chance. To emphasize the last three or four names in his favorite start in the eleventh.

At least the next 180 minutes may give the coach a clearer idea of ​​whether he prefers Gio Reina or Brendan Aaronson as his attacking midfielder/winger. The most intriguing question of all is whether Pepi is about to enjoy a renaissance at just the right time. There is only a small size sample of the player early in his career, but he tended to score in last year’s groups. If his long-awaited target last weekend proves to be the first of many – or at least some – Berhalter may face a welcome selection dilemma ahead.

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